The news of the morning is that San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is dead at 65. Dropped in an aisle last night while shopping at his neighborhood Safeway. A pretty big surprise seeing that headline before leaving home for the Citizen’s Cab lot at 4am. He was transported to the recently renamed Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center where they called it at 1:11am. Very apt. They didn’t say how he died. But, we know. Still, it’s safe to say that NO ONE saw this coming.
I’m just dropping Queen Sheba at her chef job at LinkedIn, 2nd & Howard.
Recall: Sheba is a regular ride at this time, from the single family home she inherited out in what was historically black Ingleside. We’ve gotten our groove on now where I don’t even bother asking her for a tip. I just swipe her card for the usual $26.60 base fare. It’s often in the back of my mind that these rides may be at the opportunity cost of a day tripping suit going to SFO, in that early morning window before 6am. But these days driving a taxi, a bird in the hand is king.
Our conversation touches on the usual, her white devil boss, and the lazy Millennials she holds seniority over in her kitchen.
Sheba, “Do you know what that white devil head chef had the NERVE to say at the staff meeting yesterday?! He was giving a pep talk to the kitchen staff, and he told us that he wanted us to drink the Kool-Aid! The KOOL- AID!!”
Sheba, continuing, “I stood right the hell up and told ’em, ‘Nah! Nah! I am NOT drinking the Kool-Aid! Excuse ME!! I was BORN and RAISED in the Western Addition. I KNEW people who drank the Kool-Aid! O-KAY???”
Dumbed-down aside: I feel stupid explaining this, but for those of you unaware (or too long removed) from the origin of the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” it goes back to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, a cult started by this white svengali with a “congregation” pilfered from the low-income, predominantly black residents of San Francisco’s Western Addition. As cults go, the “church” ultimately had to find new digs a good jurisprudent distance away from any U.S. federal agents actively seeking to repatriate family members under Jones’ spell. This meant South America, Jonestown, Guyana, where the project came to an abrupt and ugly end in mass murder/suicide just as the feds were closing in. Sheba would have been a young teen back in ’78 when this went down. But, I suspect that the loss of nine hundred and eighteen of her extended family and neighbors was pivotal in her acquiring a strong aversion to any thought of cyanide as an additive to her beverages. (Or, for that matter, to employee pep talks at her corporate chef gig.)
Sheba, “I usually choose my battles with the white devil head chef, but he knows I do good work, and he needed to KNOW that Kool-Aid was NOT on the menu. O-kay?? I don’t think I’ve told you before, but I used to work at the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP. You do NOT mess with Sheba! Okay??”
Driver, pulling over at Sheba’s drop, “Wow! You never mentioned that before! That’s awesome, Sheba! You’re a badass! You are the QUEEN!”
“Cha-Ching! – 1880 Minna. Willie Brown.”
My Cabulous taxi hailing-app comes ringing to life with an order just a few blocks away downtown here. Sweet. But… Sheba is early for work. And she likes to finish her conversations with me. And she has JUST started going into the finer details regarding her duties back when she worked at the NAACP.
As I ‘Accept.’
(The order. NOT the fate of this ride getting canceled on account of my passenger not seeing my taxi headed their way on the real-time map on their smartphone!)
Driver, “Uh, Sheba. I don’t mean to be rude, but I just got an app hail. I better get moving. I’ll look out for you tomorrow morning, though. We’ll pick this back up then.”
Sheba is cool about it. And, Citizen’s Cab #1015 is off to pay the rent!
Hey. Willie Brown?? Damn. I bet it is! Former Speaker of the California State Assembly. And the famous (or infamous) former Mayor of San Francisco, 1996 to 2004.
Willie Brown, along with now deceased Chinese-American political power player Rose Pak, was RESPONSIBLE for Ed Lee running for Mayor! And ONLY five hours after Mayor Ed Lee has died unexpectedly, Willie’s friend and protégé mind you, your driver is about to have him in a closed cab!?
Note: Prior to becoming mayor, Ed Lee was a bureaucrat. A bean counter for the city. And a former tenant’s rights lawyer, mostly serving the residents of Chinatown. But when Mayor Gavin Newsom (of 2004 gay marriage fame) won his race to become California’s Lieutenant Governor back in 2011, the Board of Supervisors tapped Ed Lee to finish out the remainder of Newsom’s term. At the time, Ed was considered a safe, if not boring, placeholder. And he took office with the promise that he would not run to fill the seat proper once the term was up. Well, one Rose Pak and Willie Brown-sponsored RUN, ED, RUN! campaign, and um, two re-elections later… here we are.
But, hmm. 1880 Minna? That’s an alley street. I’m pretty sure that’s is a bad address. I bet it’s really The Saint Regis. That would make more sense.
I ZOOM across the dark and quiet ghost town-like streets the few blocks over, up 3rd Street, and down a few feet into Minna, and the driveway of The St. Regis. I can see a throng of news crews just inside the lobby. And there’s a doorman behind a podium manning the driveway.
Driver rolls down the shotgun window, and leans over, “Hey! Is your address 1880 Minna?”
Doorman, “No. It’s 125 Third Street.”
Damn. Cabulous is usually pretty good about addresses. Confused, I slowly roll back out of the driveway and start heading up Third, peeking back through the glass walls of The St. Regis lobby as I do.
(Okay, passengers. Some slack, please? Starbucks is always my first stop after dropping Sheba!)
Coming to my senses, I go no further, and instead pull over and hit ‘Call Passenger’ on the Cabulous app to connect with my fare. And I watch as a smartly dressed former Mayor Willie Brown (minus his signature fedora) emerges from the throng of cameras and lights inside the glass walls of the lobby, and answers his cell phone.
Willie Brown, “This is Willie Brown speaking. Are you my taxi?”
Willie’s Taxi, “Uh, yeah. Cabulous was sending me to an address on Minna.”
Willie Brown, “I’m in the lobby of The St. Regis. I’m going to the airport.”
Willie’s Taxi, “Uh, great. Okay. I’m just on Third Street. I’ll pull into the drive.”
Willie Brown, “Very good. See you in one minute.”
I throw it in reverse and back down one-way Third Street, FAST! And I again pull into the drive of The St. Regis to, again, be met by a now quite anxious doorman.
Doorman, “OH! You’re here for Willie Brown? Uh, great! Can you wait a minute?? He’ll be right out!”
I actually HAVE driven Willie Brown once before. Almost all of San Francisco’s cabbies have. He’s a regular around town, and a devotee of real taxis. But I usually hear of him flagging you, as opposed to hailing via the Cabulous app. My previous ride with him was from just outside of Neiman Marcus in Union Square, for a short jaunt to down near the Ferry Building to the swank restaurant, Boulevard. It’s common knowledge that Willie is not only a regular at Boulevard, but that he also, conveniently, has an office right above the restaurant.
On that ride, Willie was pretty down-to-earth, engaging and amiable. Knowing at the time that Willie was a regular on the cable news circuit and way plugged-in, and with me being the political junkie that I am, I took the precious few minutes we had then to ask him what he thought of Obama.
Willie, “He’s not a fighter.”
So, imagine my surprise at drop when former Mayor Willie Brown, multi-MILLIONAIRE Willie Brown, threw me up a five and three ones on the $7.90 fare, saying to “Keep the change.”
Note: Back at the Citizen’s Cab lot at EOD, while checking out at the bullet-proof glass, I inquired around the scrum of cabbies hanging out about their experiences with Willie, specifically with regards to their tip. This, to a resounding chorus of, “That’s Willie!”
So yeah, multi-millionaire Willie Brown. (Infamous, indeed.) I have to admit that I never paid too close attention to LOCAL politics while he was in office. However, a particularly, let’s say, “questionable” idea that Willie had come up while mayor DID make its way into a song I wrote about the homeless in San Francisco at the time. In an effort to appease the city’s increasingly upset (and vocal about it) supermarket lobby, Mayor Brown proposed the idea of reclaiming all of the shopping carts stolen by the city’s homeless, and replacing them with government-subsidized granny carts. Hmm, I guess the squeaky wheel really DOES get the grease!
Or maybe not. Willie’s granny cart policy ended up DOA.
Mainly though, Willie had the reputation of being a ham, and a shameless self-promoter, having even scored a cameo in The Godfather III. Oh yeah, and he had a reputation for corruption, graft and nepotism, too. But when the dust from the multiple FBI investigations had eventually settled, my passenger was cleared. So, in other words, dude’s just your run-of-the-mill politician.
Graft and nepotism aside, under Willie Brown, the San Francisco’s homeless issue remained as stubborn as it had been over the couple of decades prior. And, as it is now, a MAJOR issue both politically and morally. Except it was NOT, under Willie, as it is now. The homeless in TODAY’S San Francisco is in SERIOUS crisis mode. Both their numbers AND the demographic make-up over the tenure of Mayor Ed Lee has exploded. (Excuse me, FORMER Mayor Ed Lee.)
Oh, look! Here comes Willie!
Man, I STILL can’t get over it. Of ALL mornings to have a ride with the man MOST responsible for Ed Lee taking office. And, a long airport ride no less!
Willie Brown, “Hi, I’m Willie Brown. I’m going to the airport.”
Driver, “I recognize you. I actually drove you once before.” Waybill/clipboard now at the ready, “SFO, then? Which airline? No luggage, eh? I’m guessing you’re not flying international.”
Willie (that last supremely witty quip putting us safe in the assumption that we are now on a first name basis), “SFO, driver. United. You guessed right. It’s just a day trip, down south.”
A little caught off guard with planning my conversational line of attack (and deprived of precious caffeine) Driver flounders in executing which direction to set off in for the highway. And it shows.
Willie, uh, assumes leadership.
Willie, “Go left on Minna, right on New Montgomery, right on Howard.”
Driver, “Wow. You really know this town. You should be a cab driver. HA!”
Willie, “Actually, I used to drive a taxi. I drove for Yellow.”
Driver, shocked, “Huh!? YOU drove a taxi?? Wait… Wha? WHY Yellow??”
Willie, “Back in ’58, they were the only cab company hiring blacks.”
Quick math: Willie’s in his early 80’s, I think? Hmm. He was maybe 23 or 24 in ’58 when he drove a cab? Guess that’s about right, around when he would have been in law school.
Driver, “Uh, so, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you how you’re feeling this morning, about the passing of Ed Lee.”
Willie, “Well, I lost a friend today. I lost a good, dear friend… And the city of San Francisco has lost a great mayor. It was I who brought Ed Lee up through the ranks, had recognized his talents, and utilized them. I was the one who pushed him to move to San Francisco, back when he was living in Oakland.”
Willie, catching himself, “Although, yes, he was not very good for the cab industry.”
To say the least.
Driver, “I’m sorry for your loss. But yeah, I didn’t know him personally. I only knew him as my mayor. And for unleashing Uber and Lyft on the world. I’m a single dad living in the city and I’ve seen a hit of about 40% to my livelihood.
Back when I was in cab school, the teacher told us to look out for, and report to the police, any gypsy cabs that we encountered on the street. It was a $5000 fine for the driver, and their car impounded. Now, if you’ve got hedge fund backing and a smart phone, and a son-in-law working high up in Lyft, the mayor rolls out the pink fuzzy carpet and declares it Lyft Day.”
Willie, “HA! HA! HA! Very good!”
Aside: Many have propagated the urban myth that it is Ed Lee’s daughter that works high up in Lyft. But, I’ve never been able to substantiate that. And I have tried. More recently, I received it on good authority, from an upper level official of the MTA whom I drove, that it is her husband.
Willie, “Well, take it from me. When you are in a position of that such as mayor, it is inevitable that you are going to lose some friends along the way… in the wake of instituting various policies.”
Driver, “Yeah, Rose Pak was none too happy with him before she passed. And it was you and Rose that encouraged him to run! What did she say in that San Francisco Magazine interview? The one where’s she’s on the cover with a baseball bat slung over her shoulder??
Oh, yeah! The interviewer asked if she had any regrets, now that she was close to dying from kidney failure and all. And, after first citing the accomplishment of having gotten the first Chinese-American mayor of a major city elected, Rose began welling up with tears and wailing, ‘A Chinese-American fucking mayor! It is the biggest disappointment in my life.’
And I guess you know better than anybody, that Rose Pak was not a lady quick to tears!”
Willie’s phone rings.
Willie, “Hello, Bernard. No. I’m still processing it all. I received a call from London Breed and Jane Kim from Zuckerberg General, around 1am, I believe. He had suffered a massive heart attack at Safeway, around 10 ‘o clock, just doing the duties of a husband. That was Ed.
No. A it came as a complete surprise. I had just been with him two days earlier. At an event where I’d introduced him. I had never seen him in finer spirits. He was as lively as ever. We joked, and ventured into our usual high jinks. And now we are talking about a dead man.
The city charter says London is now acting mayor, until we can get six votes from the Board to replace her with an interim mayor. And then, there will be a run-off election, in June.”
Huh? Wait. Did he just say “we”?
Willie, continuing, “It’s just like Feinstein, when Mayor Moscone was assassinated.”
Willie gets off his call. And Driver moves to small talk.
Driver, “So where are you headed? A quick trip to LA for business? Hopefully, a less dramatic event?”
Willie, “Actually, I’m headed down to Orange County, to do a eulogy for an old friend.”
Willie, continuing, “He was a black pioneer in the field of psychology. His work centered on exposing the fallacy of applying the customs and norms from European American psychological theories to black folks. My good friend Dr. White was the first black man at Michigan State to receive a Ph.D. in his field. And at the time of his passing, he was Professor Emeritus at UC Irvine. We were classmates at San Francisco State in our younger days.”
Willie’s phone rings again.
Willie, “Excuse me.”
Hey, wait. Is Willie on CNN right now?? From the back seat of my cab???
Willie, “Yes. Well, I lost a good, dear friend today. And San Francisco lost a great mayor.
(His talking points now fine-tuned.)
He was a humble man. He was just doing the duties of that of any regular husband, shopping for his family at the supermarket.
Well, it was I who had first taken note of his talents, and utilized them as he rose through various positions within government. It was I who was the one who had encouraged Mayor Lee to move to San Francisco from Oakland, where he had been living prior to running for office. In running for the office of mayor, a candidate must live in the city.
The legacy of Mayor Edwin M. Lee will first and foremost be that of the first Asian American mayor of any world-class city. Second, it will be the reversal of Silicon Valley, north to San Francisco, where all of the major CEO’s in tech prefer to make their home. Indeed, Mayor Edwin M. Lee has left behind him a legacy as rich as any.”
Boy, I’ll say…
The reckless (at best) incentivizing of a major increase in demand for housing in what was already a supply-strapped city, via the likes of Airbnb – and its withholding of precious housing stock from the market, Google (et al’s) wi-fi enabled buses waiting en mass in public bus stops to transport 45,000 new-to-SF tech workers an hour south to the job, Uber and Lyft – with their lawless business models, exploitation of workers, and multifaceted threats to public safety, the payroll tax breaks for Twitter (and its billions in valuation ilk) in the gambit to keep tech HQ’s scaling in town in the name of job creation.
Indeed, jobs have been created. Many, many, jobs. For every kid fresh out of college with a computer science degree to move here from the Midwest with a six-figure starting salary, only to turn a rent-controlled unit condo and thereby displace some multi-generational working class family, immigrant dish washer, teacher, fire fighter, barista, artist, musician, or cab driver.
It is not hard to preside over a city with a 0% jobless rate and an historical booming economy when you simply ignore laws and regulations, and supplant every constituent who voted for you with an influx of darlings in the venture capital economy.
Legacy? How about the 400,000 strong exodus of San Franciscans under Ed Lee’s reign, in a city of about 900,000. How about that 70% of the homeless in SF once lived under a roof here. What about that ahistorical change in the demographic of my town’s homeless, of which I alluded to earlier?
No. The legacy of Mayor Ed Lee’s San Francisco is one where your local taxi driver now commonly finds himself driving displaced homeless families to dirty SRO hotels, the college educated, chefs, and khaki pant-clad financial workers – complete with corporate ID badges – hailing you from a tent under the highway and headed downtown to the office. Graft, corruption, nepotism, these are NOT Willie Brown’s homeless.
Okay, sure. Ed Lee was “down-to-earth,” a “nice guy,” “unassuming.” A “family man.” And he brought the corny jokes.
Yeah, and boy didn’t ya wanna throw back a frosty one with ‘ol George W. back in 2000!
Oops, sorry. Lost myself there.
Citizen’s Cab #1015 pulls into SFO – Terminal 3, United – Premier. The meter reads $42.20, as Willie is still on his cell and in mid-interview about his friend. He covers his phone to mouth a “thank you” up to his driver. And then, Willie Brown walks off into the fracas of SFO.
Right on cue, my Cabulous phone chimes with verification that our ride has completed, and Willie’s on-file credit card has been charged.
Hmm. I wonder what he tipped me. A quirk of the app is that you have to drill down afterwards, should you care to see. And, long ago, I stopped doing that. After a Millennial Uber convert thought it was ok to leave none. (If it’s true, own it Millennials.) And I went about the rest of my shift stewing, and vowing to exact various kinds of imagined revenge on the twenty-something that I’d inadvertently “shared a ride” with.
I drill down…
Willie Brown for Mayor!!!
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Photo by Alex SacK