For the past four months the View has published experts from Gold, a serialized tale of politics, capitalism, and corruption in San Francisco. In this issue the first three chapters are reprinted, along with the fourth installment, enabling readers to catchup as the story continues to unfold.
“I told you John, I’m not selling,” said Chester.
He was spraying water that’d traveled hundreds of miles, all the way from Hetch-Hetchy, hard on the Yosemite Valley, on a small pallet of bright yellow Blazing Star flowers. Chester had been the first to cultivate the wildflowers. It was a tricky process, dependent on a mix of soil composed of compost made up of food scraps from a nearby Locavore restaurant, along with a “secret ingredient” that consisted mostly of the dregs scrapped from the bottom of a vat of handcrafted beer, brewed a few blocks away.
“You’re an idiot!” John shouted back. “Do you know how much this place is worth? What’s the point of growing weeds for Silicon Valley coding commuters when you could be retired in a villa in Mexico?”
“Weed, eh,” Chester said. “That’s an idea. It’s bound to be fully legal sometime soon. The trick would be how to make it drought-resistant, it uses a lot of water…”
John took a step towards Chester, his hands up in surrender. In his mid-40s, John had the build of a former boxer who’d spent a great deal of time drinking and eating after he retired early from the ring. His large belly sagged over his belt; a full head of prematurely white hair capped a face already mapped with wiggly broken corpuscles, most prominently on a nose that looked like it’d be broken more than once.
“I’m just saying,” John sighed deeply, “that you should think about it.”
Chester, who had a headful of grey hair, and another 10 years and 25 pounds on John, carried in a rounder, more friendly fashion, smiled. “I will, John, I will.”
“That’s all I ask,” said John, who turned towards the door. “I’ll check in with you later.”
“You do that, John,” said Chester.
He watched as John strode out of his plant store. As the wooden door slapped shut he stepped back, his hand reaching towards the redwood bench next to the cash register. He slumped onto it, his body slack.
Maggie, Chester’s wife, who was recovering from a recent knee operation, hobbled in from the outside garden area. “Who was that,” she asked.
Chester looked up, resting his hands on his thighs. “John. He was after me to sell. Again.”
“Ugh,” said Maggie, as she sat down next to Chester. “Who does that guy work for, anyway?”
“I dunno,” Lester shook his head. “He’s always been some kind of City fixer, paving the way for developers, but I never know exactly which ones.”
“You okay,” Maggie squinted at Chester. “You don’t look so good.”
“I’m just tired,” said Chester, as he checked the readings on a device strapped to his belt that he used to monitor his blood sugar. “Neither of us are spring chickens, anymore. Hell, you turn 60 next week.”
“Always reminding me that I’m the older woman,” Maggie chuckled. “As I recall, at the time you needed the training,” she winked at Chester.
“I suppose I did,” replied Chester, as he slowly got to his feet. “Now off to make some more of that mulch.”
“Ha!” said Maggie. “You mean to get a mid-day beer with your friends.”
“That too,” said Chester, waving his hand as he ambled out of his shop.
Chester inherited the property on which he operated the nursery from his father, Angelo. Angelo had fled Cyprus in the early-1960s, when he was just 16 years-old, propelled to America by a spasm of violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. His father was killed. He’d been separated from his mother and sister in the chaos at the docks; thousands of people pushing to get on boats bound for a dozen different ports. The rest of his family found passage to Greece, where they settled. It’d take Angelo thirty years, and the expenditure of no small amount of his wealth, to find them.
Angelo landed in New York with empty pockets and a head full of determination. He made his way west, stopping to work as a laborer in Chicago, Denver and smaller towns along the way, before arriving in San Francisco in the mid-1960s.
While the City’s tight community of Beats loosened into a growing conflagration of hippies, Angelo focused on making money. He joined a construction crew that bought and rehabilitated Victorians that’d been relocated to make way for Highway 101. Each crew member threw whatever cash he had into a pot to purchase a broken-down building, the deal sealed with Ouzo shots. Proceeds were shared equally after the house was sold.
By the summer of love Angelo had amassed enough money to buy several properties, and start a family. Chester was born, followed by his sister, Linda. But Angelo wasn’t happy. He watched in disgust as the children of the wealthy turned their backs on their families, squandered their inheritance on “destressed” clothes, and their mental health on newly discovered drugs, as if privilege was a gift rather than something to be earned. He thought about his father, tending the family’s olive grove; his mother slapping clothes against rocks to get them clean. He turned his anger into greed, and greed into the single thing he loved except the past.
By the 1980s he was a wealthy man. But it wasn’t enough. He purchased the Goodman Building, a rundown five-story structure that was originally constructed in the mid-19th century as a working class hotel. In the 1970s it’d become a squat for hippies, morphing into a kind of arts commune when Angelo bought it. It generated little in the way of fees, but San Francisco’s tight rent control laws made it difficult to dislodge any of the tenants.
Channeling all his fury over his lost homeland, murdered father, and missing family – forgetting that he’d created a new one in his adopted City – Angelo launched a campaign to rid his building of everyone. He planned to tear it down, and replace it with live-work lofts catering to San Francisco’s emerging technology class. When plumbing failed he didn’t fix it; sewage seeped around toilets and adjacent walls. He wandered the hallways with a large German Shepard, which would lunge at tenants if they passed within a couple of yards. A few of the occupants drifted away. But most stayed. They had nowhere else to go.
On October 17, 1989, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake hit San Francisco. Within moments a portion of the Bay Bridge collapsed; smoke curled up from a damaged apartment complex in the City’s northwest corner. When the quake struck, Angelo staggered out of the Greek restaurant, S. Asimakopoulos, where he’d been sipping thick coffee. He watched as the smoke drifted across the skyline.
Later, fire erupted at the Goodman Building. Most of Angelo’s tenants had scrambled out shortly after the earthquake. But three – a man in his seventies, as well as a couple who were later determined to have recently ingested methamphetamines – were inside when the building collapsed in on itself.
A San Francisco Fire Department investigation into the blaze traced its origin to a spilled gasoline canister in the building’s basement. How the liquid caught fire was a mystery. Officials suspected that shaking from the earthquake had tipped the container over; the spilled contents ignited by sparks created by the scrapping of wood and metal objects, or perhaps from a damaged electrical wire. Nothing was ever proven.
A few weeks after the fire Angelo traveled to Tinos, in the Greek isles, following a tip suggesting that his family had settled there. He found his mother and sister. They were buried in a small graveyard next to a derelict church, killed more than 20 years previously in a car accident As Angelo brushed the dirt off of his mother’s tombstone, scratching at the letters to find what he’d lost, he had a stroke. He lay for a few moments, his arms weakly trying to pull the gravestone to his chest, not knowing who, or where, he was. And then he died.
Nash gently knocked on the Honorable William E. Wong’s executive office door. The Mayor often did not want to be disturbed. But neither did he want to be late for a scheduled meeting. Either could cause a prominent worm-shaped blood vessel on the left side of his forehead to start throbbing. Depending on the throb’s tempo, it could be followed by an explosion of expletives, or, particularly if it was prompted by a big campaign donor, lower the Mayor’s voice to an ultra-soothing purr, though he mostly seemed to be soothing himself. Nash had taken to counting the forehead’s pulse, making silent bets with himself as to whether the Mayor would release the tiger, or the pussy.
The scheduling coordinator had told him that the Mayor’s previous meeting had been with a group of biotechnology venture capitalists. She hadn’t seen them leave, but she was often too busy fielding calls, emails, and impromptu visits from lobbyists or advocates to notice comings and goings.
Nash carefully pushed open the door. The Mayor was leaning back in his desk chair, eyes closed. Nash squinted. The Mayor had small, colorful spots all over his face and neck. They looked like the candy dots Nash’s mother rewarded him with after he finished swimming lessons when he was a kindergartener twenty years ago.
Nash stepped into the room. He glanced at the wall behind the mayor, which was covered with hats hanging on pegs: construction, firefighter, and football helmets, sailor, police and National Guard hats, baseball and surgical caps. A hoodie hung on a hook, draping down in such a way as to reveal the writing stitched on the back; Bayview Bombers.
The Mayor had started his hat collection when he headed the City’s public utility commission. Nash imagined that he’d acquired each of them after vanquishing its wearer in bureaucratic battle, the beaten individual solemnly doffing his cap and handing it over. Lately, though, supplicants had taken to bringing unusual head coverings as gifts. A fedora on the wall’s far left side had been presented to the Mayor by a previous, even more powerful, mayor, who had grown wealthy fronting for developers. A native headdress was next to it, provided by a tribe exploring whether it might open a gambling casino on Treasure Island.
The Mayor’s eyes were open. He was staring hard at Nash. The blood vessel steadily pulsed. For a moment Nash thought there actually was a worm under there, and it was about to burst out of the Mayor’s head as a fanged butterfly. His hands automatically drifted awards, in case they needed to cover his face.
“Uh, Mr. Mayor, your next appointment is here.”
The Mayor waved in Nash’s direction. The forehead throb had accelerated. Nash braced for a wet torrent of foul vocabulary.
Instead, the Mayor purred. “So,” he murmured over Nash’s shoulder. “What did you learn about me?”
Nash glanced behind him. Three people – two overweight balding men in matching khakis and blue button down shirts and an attractive twenty-something woman in a blue skirt and white blouse – were seated on the sofa in the alcove at the back of the room. The woman, who had on chunky green hipster eyeglasses and a grim expression, was examining a device that looked like an oversized iPhone.
“You’re blood sugar is a bit high,” said the woman, without looking up. “Cholesterol looks pretty good. For someone your age. Negative on HIV; let me check for other STDs…”
One of the men abruptly stood up, placing a hairy hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I think the Mayor gets the idea,” he almost shouted. “Amazing, isn’t, Mr. Mayor? As I explained, our technology can do a complete array of lab tests, with no nasty needles, almost immediately, with all data sent to any device that’s wireless-enabled. You can get a checkup in China, and have a UCSF doctor read the results!”
He looked down at the woman, who was swiping different screens on her handheld. “Stephanie, I think we’ve taken enough of the Mayor’s time. Please remove the med-dots, and we’ll be on our way.”
Stephanie slowly tore her eyes from the screen, handed the device to the man, walked over to the Mayor, and began peeling off the dots with a tiny chisel-shaped tool, depositing them into a small metal box.
“Amazing!” echoed the Mayor, who didn’t try to hide his glance down Stephanie’s blouse.
“Indeed!” said the second man, who had risen from his seat, and walked briskly to the Mayor’s desk. “Which is why we’re looking to expand our space in Mission Bay. I hope we have your support.”
“Indeed!” said the Mayor, with enthusiastic ambivalence. “Thanks for coming in and showing me the magic!” He shook hands with his three visitors, and walked them towards the door, past Nash. A stray red dot remained tilted on his neck, and then fell off, drifting down into the carpet.
The Mayor spun around and strode back to his desk. “What now?” he barked.
“Mr. Block, er, John is here for his 3 p.m.. He wants to talk to you about that Potrero Hill property.”
“The asshole property owner still won’t budge?” asked the Mayor, as he reached down to pick up his telephone.
“Apparently not,” said Nash.
“He will,” said the Mayor, as he started pushing buttons. “Tell Block I need to reschedule.”
As Nash turned to leave he spotted the red dot. Glancing at the Mayor, who was already purring to someone on the other end of the line, he reached down, picked it up, and slid it into his pocket. The door hardly made a sound as he closed it softly behind him.
“So, you gonna sell?”
Pete was straddling a bar stool, next to Chester. Both were gripping pints – Pete the latest from Speakeasy; Chester a seasonal Anchor Steam – pretending to pay attention to the baseball game displayed on a large screen bolted to the wall above shelves of colorful bottles. The season was all but over; the so recently proud San Francisco Giants hacked impotently at fastballs that weren’t even that fast.
“I dunno,” said Chester. “I don’t want to, but Maggie says we should.” He tilted his head towards Pete, and raised his glass. “This ain’t for attribution, you know.”
“Of course,” said Pete. They both lifted their pints and gulped at the brown liquid.
Pete looked like a pelican that’d banged up against a ceiling fan once too often, with a long nose, lower lip that jutted outwards, as if to catch any nasal debris, and a body shaped like a stick that’d swallowed a basketball. He published, edited, and wrote a community newspaper, The SF Lighting Bolt. At one point it’d been a force in the City, helping to elect a congresswoman who eventually became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, toppling petty politicians, and uncovering small scale municipal corruption. But that was a quarter-century ago. Today it was mostly an advertiser for cannabis clubs and tranny escorts.
“What would your dad do?” Pete tried to hide his smirk with another gulp of beer, triggering a cough fit.
“Why are you such an asshole,” answered Chester, though there was no heat in his voice.
The Lighting Bolt had made a name for itself with a series of articles, written by Pete, speculating on what caused the fire that destroyed the Goodman Building after the 1989 earthquake, which had resulted in the demise of three tenants. The paper had called for an inquiry into the deaths, suggesting that they were murders perpetrated by Chester’s father, Angelo, covered up by the district attorney, who’d been the recipient of generous campaign donations when he first ran for office. The DA countered that since Angelo himself was dead, there was little to investigate.
Rather than cause enmity between Chester and Pete, the stories had formed the basis for a friendship. While he never admitted it to anyone other than his wife, Maggie, Chester suspected that Pete was right.
A hub of voices emerged from the bar’s entrance. Pete turned to look. Chester motioned his head towards the sound, but kept his eyes on the television.
“City Supervisor Rebecca Schwartz in the house!” someone shouted out.
The Supervisor made her way across the establishment, a broad smile pasted on her face. She paused every few steps to whisper into someone’s ear, or touch a bicep. Despite her name, which prompted many of her constituents who’d never seen her to think she was Jewish, Rebecca was a 30-something African-American woman, with a body like Joan Holloway from Mad Men. She was wearing a clingy blue dress; multiple colorful bangles clinked on her wrist.
“Here comes trouble,” Pete said out of the side of his mouth to Chester.
“Hello, gentlemen,” Rebecca said, having disentangled herself from an elderly man who, while tightly gripping her left hand, had been complaining about Muni’s latest route changes.
“Supervisor.” Chester had turned around on his stool to face Rebecca, holding his beer. Pete had shifted towards the television. “A pleasure to see you.”
“And you, Chester. Hello, Pete,” she said to Pete’s back.
Pete and Rebecca had run for supervisor during the same election cycle, after the previous occupant, a flamboyant and well-liked, if ineffective, elderly African-American woman had been termed out. It’d been a nasty campaign, with six other competitors. Pete had received more first place votes than Rebecca, but not a majority. He’d lost as a result of the City’s ranked choice voting system, in which voters’ second and third choice for candidates were tabulated until a politician collected more than 50 percent of the votes.
“What’s new, Chester?” asked Rebecca.
“Not much,” he replied. “Hoping for rain.”
“Yes, this drought is a killer. I’m thinking of offering legislation that’d require dry cleaners to reduce their water use. I mean, DRY cleaners, hello?”
She smiled at Chester, who smiled back. In the background the snap of a bat hitting a baseball could be heard; the Giants had managed to squeeze out a single.
“How’s Maggie? Her knee surgery a success?”
“Yep, she’s doing better,” replied Chester.
“Good, good,” smiled Rebecca. Her left check twitched, as if the muscles used to maintain the brilliant smile were giving way. “So, um, how’s business? Rumor has it you may be selling the property.”
Pete spun around in his stool so abruptly that Rebecca took a step back in surprise, and Pete almost threw himself off his perch.
“Everybody wants to know about that property,” Pete said. “Why is that? You have something in mind for it? Maybe build another huge box of one bedrooms that only the rich can afford to house their mistresses? Or is it going to be some kind of bioterrorism facility?”
“Pete,” Rebecca leaned in towards him. He could smell the Altoids mint she’d recently sucked on. “Is this a press conference?” She turned towards Chester, touching his bicep. “I’m here for you if you need me,” she said. “I know how hard it can be to make a change.”
In a single movement that could have been part of a choreographed dance sequence, she pivoted away from Chester, and waved a hand towards the bar’s entrance. “Oh, hi!” she exclaimed, though it wasn’t clear to whom she was speaking. ‘We’ll talk later, Chester,” she said, airily, and strode towards the exit. Her presence lingered, as if the air molecules surrounding the bar had absorbed stray parts of her essence. Chester and Pete turned back towards the television.
“So, what are you going to do?” asked Pete.
“I dunno,” said Chester, taking a gulp of his beer. “And I wish people would stop asking.”