Pete sat on his aging sofa in his cluttered apartment, wondering where he’d gone wrong. Twenty years ago he’d been in the thick of things, breaking important stories, appearing on local news programs to explain the complicated power struggles that made up City politics. He knew who hated who, and which of these haters slept with which of their purported enemies, physically or legislatively. He could list the community advocates who actually cared, and those that were in it for the money, shaking-down developers and municipal officials to help “expedite” the project du jour. You get fucked either way, became his catchphrase, uttered late-night in low-end bars that mostly no longer existed.
He’d never made any money, initially because he didn’t try to; later because he didn’t know how. The SF Lighting Bolt rose on a tide of community activism, the Red Diaper babies that populated Potrero Hill crowding in on production night, clutching a pizza slice from Goat Hill in one hand, a glue stick or editing pen in another, the chatter over headline and word choices as thick as summer fog. Then, the volunteer crew started to drift away, moving to retirement communities in Marin or San Mateo, finding jobs in other states.
After counting his quarters to buy a beer at The Pound or a tuna sandwich at Dago Mary’s too many times, Pete found ways to pushout the remaining poorly paid staff, so he could keep all the advertising dollars to himself. For a while he made a decent living, his housing costs kept low by rent control. Then, ad revenues started to decline. The cost of living in San Francisco accelerated towards becoming nearly unbearable. A Mission burrito that used to be priced at a few bucks now cost $10. Same pattern for a bag of groceries, or a movie ticket.
Worse yet, at least for his self-esteem, was the growing number of places Pete couldn’t even afford to walk into, even if he understood what, exactly, they were selling. The Daily Scoop, Klein’s Deli, and the Garden of Tranquility folded or were felled by rising rents. They were initially replaced by a wave of nail salons, followed by wine bars and sushi restaurants. Then, the high end sushi restaurants started eating the family friendly burrito places; an affordable lunch with enough left over for dinner gave way to a costly sushi-burrito creature at twice the price. Bobo tea outlets popped up where a donut shop might have previously located. Newly “curated” bars sold $20 cocktails made of vodka distilled in the Himalayas, infused with the breath of Buddhist priest. In an era of low or no inflation, at least according to the Feds, Pete’s buying power had deflated like a cheap kids’ balloon the day after a party catered by Safeway.
Pete looked around his apartment, at the stacks of old newspapers, ancient office supplies, and wrecked appliances. “Here I sit, broken hearted,” he said out loud. He stared at a tattered United Farm Workers poster he’d tacked to the wall a thousand years ago. “You get fucked either way,” he pronounced, mustering a hoarse chuckle.
A shrill ring cut his laugh short, causing his throat to catch, triggering a coughing fit. Pete pushed aside a wire basket filled with old bank statements to get to the phone.
“Hello,” he croaked.
“Is this the Lighting Bolt?” asked what sounded like a synthetic voice, with a pitch between Stephen Hawking and a Muni announcement that a train was about to arrive. Pete thought about hanging up.
“Uh, yeah. Who is this?”
“I have a tip for you, something I think you’ll be interested in.”
Pete rubbed his forehead. Was this an IRS scam; some kind of robo call? “Uh huh, okay. What’s the tip?”
“Your penis,” he thought he heard someone whispering in the background, but it may have been static. “I need to tell you in person. Meet me at the Yankee in one hour.”
“Is this a joke?” asked Pete. “Who are you?”
“Need to know basis,” said the voice. “You’ll find out soon enough. At the Yankee.” The caller hung up.
Pete sighed. “I guess it’s better than sitting here,” he said to himself. He twisted around, rummaged under the sofa cushions for spare coins. Finding none, he went through the pockets of the jackets in his closet, then the pants half folded on a shelf. Setting aside a lighter, a few business cards – his and others – he finally came across a tiny clump of bills in a pair of jeans he hadn’t worn in a year. A five and three ones. Enough to buy a beer.
Each month the View publishes a chapter from Gold, a serialized tale of politics, capitalism, and corruption in San Francisco. Previous chapters can be found on the paper’s website, www.potreroview.net. Advertisers or supporters interested in sponsoring future installations, or publishing the final manuscript, should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.