Monday, March 1, 2010


Shift #30

FRIDAY, MARCH 19 -- Hotel W to North Beach Restaurant -- $7.60

I’VE JUST FINISHED windexing all my windows when the most dapper gentleman in the whole city -- not just today, but for the past thirty-forty-fifty years or so -- strolls up to my cab. I am the world’s most pedestrian dresser: blue jeans, hiking boots, and a baseball cap is about all you get from me, and that’s what I am wearing this morning. I can’t even name the various items of clothing worn by former San Francisco mayor, former Speaker of the California state assembly, and current bon vivant/man-about-town...Willie Brown. Is that snappy hat with the brim a “Panama”? A “bowler?” A “fedora?” And what’s that vest/tie/sweater-coat thing called? Where do you even shop for pants and shoes that expensive-looking, that fancy? But I really don’t have time to decipher any of this. I barely have time to note several sweet but discreet flashes of color (red? orange? was there a blue in there somewhere?) and that Willie Brown himself is standing on the Howard Street sidewalk and pointing at my cab: “Are you first-up?”

Willie Brown is almost certainly the most-spotted celebrity in San Francisco (Robin Williams might be second). I think of him as a modern Emperor Norton -- sane, however. Super sane. I moved to San Francisco in 1982, and it seems that Willie has been in the news just about every day since. Every cab driver seems to have had him in the backseat (way back when he first came to San Francisco, Willie himself had a stint as a Yellow Cab driver!), but this is a first for me.

Actually, I’ve had a few conversations with Willie Brown in the past, but I’m sure he doesn't remember any of them. Several times he and I attended the same cab industry political meetings and engaged in back-and-forth. And when Willie was mayor, he used to grant personal audiences to members of the public once a month, and on one of those Saturday mornings I was among a group of three taxi drivers who were ushered into his office, where he was cordial and, as always, direct. He cut right to the chase, and in short order granted whatever important political favor we were asking that day -- right this minute I can’t actually recall just what it was.

But our most recent conversation was in 2007. That was the year I organized the four “Beach Impeach” events, each of which attracted one thousand or more citizens who laid their bodies down inside the outlines of one-hundred-foot tall lettering that spelled out “IMPEACH!” while a helicopter (or sometimes two) photographed us from above. (I rented something like six or seven helicopters that year!) The first event took place on the sands of Ocean Beach two days after Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Channel Seven sent up its own helicopter for that one, and the footage went nationwide on ABC News and then worldwide on CNN. Many of us in the “Impeach Bush and Cheney” movement hallucinated that we were really on our way to something great, on our way to some sort of national return to sanity. But we might as well have been sand fleas -- Pelosi ignored us, squashed all talk of impeachment, and when she came to San Francisco on a book tour later that summer I was among the crowd that turned out for a book-promo event she held in a theater at Fort Mason. I was actually surprised to even be allowed past the building’s front door, because the Secret Service (I’m pretty sure that’s who it was) had escorted me out of Pelosi’s previous night’s event over in Marin County after I hoisted a blood-red “IMPEACH!” sign overhead... Which is altogether another story...

But at Fort Mason I found myself strolling into the auditorium side by side with…Well, it’s Willie Brown! And Willie Brown is not just the most ubiquitous celebrity in San Francisco, he’s also the most approachable, and I struck up a two-three-four minute discussion with him about the odds of impeachment happening. Or perhaps it was just a fifteen-second discussion, as Willie simply laughed it off. “Never happen,” he said with unimpeachable self-assurance. “Never ever happen… Not a chance… That’s just dreaming…” Willie won’t remember that conversation, but I do feel certain that he will remember the evening forever, as, over the course of an hour-plus, Nancy Pelosi and KQED’s Michael Krasny tried to have an on-stage conversation while thirty percent of the audience screamed and screamed and screamed: “DO YOUR JOB!” “IMPEACH HIM!” “WE VOTED FOR YOU!” “CAN YOU NOT HEAR US?” Etc.

But I don’t mention any of this to Willie this morning. I just ask where he’s going, and he tells me “North Beach Restaurant.”

We creep through slow traffic and orange cones and police officers in front of the Museum of Modern Art. Willie says, “They’ve been shooting a Volvo commercial since six this morning.”

I tell him that yesterday Toyota sent a film crew to the Green Cab lot to film a commercial. (I don’t mention my starring role.) He says, “That’s smart. That could give them a boost.”

Willie was in the news yesterday, testifying in front of a Public Utilities Commission hearing about a bill that our local power company, Pacific Gas & Electric, is trying to get the voters to approve this fall. My sense is that it’s a bad bill, another PG & E power play, but the truth is I don’t know as much about it as I would like. I ask Willie a series of questions. He gives absolutely clear and convincing responses, and I realize I am completely out of my league in this conversation. I don’t know shit -- I thought it was obvious that Bush and Cheney should have been impeached, and I thought we were going to do it… I don’t know shit... And I certainly don’t know what to make of Brown’s politics. Of all the politicians I’ve ever observed, he has always struck me as either the very smartest, or the most adept at using power, or the most openly corrupt, or maybe he’s all three of those and then some. He seems to have all ten of his fingers in every single pot, and I doubt that a deal of any significance has been done in the Bay Area or even in all of California in the last thirty years without Willie being a part of it. And here he is in my backseat, as open and confident as -- and a whole lot better dressed than -- any fare I can remember.

I ask, “Do you mind all my questions?”

He, emphatically: “No!

Me: “Prop A of 2007...?”

“Which one was that?” Willie Brown asks me. I give him the title -- “Transit Reform, Parking Regulation, Emissions Reduction” -- and paint the bill’s broad strokes.

“Oh, yes,” he says. “I was against that one. They were trying to put everything under the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency (SFMTA). I didn’t think they should do that. I didn’t think they should mix the buses and parking meters. And furthermore I think all the buses should be free -- we should pay for them with property taxes. I thought it was a bad idea.”

I am glad to hear this, because I hated that bill. But my objections were different than Willie’s. “How about those three sentences about the taxi industry?” I ask him.

“What were they?”

This is a subject near to my heart, and off I go: “The whole bill took up ten mind-numbing pages of voter pamphlet fine print, and although no one’s taking responsibility for it, someone slipped in three sentences that abolished the Taxicab Commission and handed the taxicab industry over to the SFMTA. Now the SFMTA is trying to strongarm as much money from the taxi industry as they can -- they’re holding us upside down by the ankles and shaking.”

He laughs. “That’s funny. That’s a good one.”

“I don’t think whoever did this -- Gavin Newsom and company -- should get away with it. I wrote an article about this for San Francisco Magazine, and it’s coming out any day now...”

“Hee-hee…” Willie is gleeful. He loves it. “Good for you! I started the Taxicab Commission, you know…?” He sounds proud, a little protective.

Me: “I know! And the way they ended it… It wasn’t right… three sentences hidden in ten pages of fine print...”

He: “I always spoke out loud -- it got me into trouble sometimes, but I was always upfront about everything…”

Me: “You strutted all over town with your stuff right out there…”

He seems to like this. I continue: “Slipping in three sentences, taking money from cab drivers… It’s like sleeping with your friend’s wife or something...”

Willie chuckles. He knows what I’m talking about. “That’s cheating…” he says. In his autobiography, “Basic Brown”, Willie repeats Jesse Unruh’s famous political adage, “If you can’t take the lobbyists’ money, drink their booze, sleep with their women, and then vote against them, you don’t belong here.” Now he tells me, “You can sleep with someone else’s wife, but your friend’s wife -- that’s cheating! That’s really cheating...”

We’re pulling up in front of the North Beach Restaurant. I haven’t even thought about free ride, but now I see Willie digging for his wallet. I say, “For the past fifteen or twenty years I have given away one free ride every shift, and I would be honored to have this be my free ride today....”

He says, “You’re shittin' me!”

Me: “No. It’s true...”

He: “For fifteen or twenty years?”

Me: “Fifteen or twenty years.” We are eyeball to eyeball, about twenty-four inches apart. Willie Brown is not a young man. I’m fifty-eight and I figure he’s got at least ten years on me, but the face looking out from under the brim of his hat has a smile so wide, so eager, so innocent, you’d swear Willie Brown was twelve years old. Or maybe only eight. Put that smile on a million rooftops and we wouldn’t need PG & E at all.

He says, “I’m going to write about you in my column.” Several years ago I drifted away from the Chronicle -- I’d forgotten Willie even had a column -- Willie's World. “What’s your name?” he asks.

I tell him. He asks me to spell it.

We share a big, hearty, over-the-backseat handshake. “I’ve been blogging about my free rides this year,” I tell him. “I’m going to write about this ride, too. Let’s see who gets into print first!”

Bystanders at the corner of Green and Stockton may be startled by the sounds of a cab driver and his customer sharing a big, hearty roar of laughter as Willie Brown opens my cab’s rear door. He climbs out, walks across the Stockton Street sidewalk, and, still laughing, disappears into North Beach Restaurant.

[UPDATE: A week later, on Sunday March 28, Willie closes his column this way:

“The birthday would not have been complete without a visit from my cowboy buddies from Buttonwillow in Kern County. They brought my new summer Stetson, which I promptly wore to dinner at Harris’ steakhouse...

“Now on to my cab guys. Brian Newsham drives a green cab -- a Toyota Prius. For 25 years of his driving career, he has given one free ride each day. On my birthday, I got the free ride. From now on, I’m going to look for that cab every day.”]



  1. Brad,
    You are something else--what a wonderful, makes the world a better place, kind of thing you have been doing!
    So, with this blog, did you beat Willie Brown to press?

  2. Sand fleas! You are a great writer! That's exactly what we were.