San Francisco Beat
This is a true story:
In 1981, while in exile from Veterans Cab for not paying the manager a bribe he demanded, I was working the night shift for the DeSoto Sedan Car Company (aka DeSoto Cab). DeSoto was kind of a sleazy operation even by taxi company standards, and its drivers little more than hoods and gangsters. On my first day one of the dispatchers tried to sell me a 9mm he had "taken off a dead gook in 'Nam," but I declined as I already had a Saturday night special issued to me at Veterans. I had only carried it for protection from DeSoto drivers; now I was one. I had a unique perspective on The City that most citizens did not enjoy. My name is John and I'm a cab driver.
Late one night, I think it was 1981, the dispatcher (some scum whose name I don't remember) reported a driver in distress on Divisadero Street near Bush or Sutter. I was nearby so I rushed to the scene. I found there an extremely intoxicated and belligerent motorist involved in a physical confrontation with our driver, a young black man who had no trouble handling this obnoxious drunk. I also recognized the offending motorist as former San Francisco County Sheriff and member of the Board of Supervisors Richard Hongisto.
Hongisto was the darling of the progressive Left in The City. A former SFPD officer elected sheriff, he catered to the gay community, fraternized with whores and essentially decriminalized victimless crimes. He was most famous for his refusal in 1976 to carry out an eviction of impoverished seniors from The International Hotel near Chinatown. He went to jail for that a few days but in the end, to keep his job, he enforced the eviction.
Anyway, Hongisto had clearly rear-ended the DeSoto K-Car with his luxury vehicle, which had serious front-end damage. As the cabbie didn't need my help with this obnoxious drunk, I pulled over to the curb opposite to watch the show.
Within a minute an SFPD black-and-white arrived and a good thing too because I think the cabbie would have given the former sheriff a trouncing. Hongisto reacted in his usual cool way; he assaulted the city officers. More cops arrived and they gladly beat down, subdued, cuffed and arrested him on a variety of charges. The show over, I laughed and went on my way.
Early the following day the news media reported the story fairly accurately. A drunken city father had caused a collision, been combative and arrested for drunk driving and assaulting police officers. You'd have to understand the hatred that the SFPD had for the sheriff. He had been a former city officer himself and had exposed corruption on the force. As sheriff he essentially decriminalized marijuana and prostitution; in fact he openly catered to prostitutes, which really pissed off the cops because they had to do their whoring the old-fashioned way, surreptitiously.
At the DeSoto garage on Geary Street the next day I looked for the damaged taxi and was told that it had already been repaired, clearly a lie. I found the cab and discovered that it was just another K-Car that they had changed the number on. The original vehicle was gone. DeSoto, like all of the big cab companies, does their own bodywork but it was not in the shop area.
The next day, less than two days after the event, the San Francisco Chronicle and other news outlets were stating that the previous report was inaccurate. It seems that the official spin now was that Hongisto had been rear-ended by the cab and then roughed up unnecessarily by the officers! Both vehicles were either repaired or missing, police reports altered, cops silenced and the innocent cabbie fired. The local papers, including the left-leaning weekly rags, went along with the ruse.
San Francisco is a corrupt city along the lines of old Tammany Hall in New York, and police are at the center of the dirty dealings. My friends in the bar business pay the cops on a weekly basis, they don't even try to hide it. (They call it the "pad.") Two uniformed cops will come into the bar in full view of all and receive an envelope from the owner. I was once refused service at a bar in North Beach near the precinct house because the owner was sick of paying the pad and giving cops free drinks. He confused me with an off-duty cop. Shortly thereafter he went out of business for unknown reasons.
One time I was in Marv Grolnick's (the godfather of DeSoto Cab) office being put through a shakedown of one kind or another (they're always getting money out of you someway), when a phone call came in. Marv spoke to the caller briefly.
"Capt. O'Neil, how are you? ... Huh, huh ... Huh, huh ... Yeah sure, no problem."
The call terminated and Marv dropped the phone back in the cradle.
"Grover?" He shouted to the outer office. A fat dispatcher appeared in the doorway.
"Send Capt. O'Neil's daughter another hundred dollar pack of cab script." (Company-issued notes, exchanged for cab fare).
"Didn't we just send her some last week?" Grover asked.
"Yeah but the little tramp ran out already. I told him before that we would only give her one pack per month. Okay, Whalen, where were we?"
Now I knew why I had to cough up three hundred bucks to keep my job; Marv had to make payoffs, too.
"You were unjustly charging back book or cab damages or something. How much do you want this time"? I asked.
I have on several occasions been pulled over and solicited a bribe from patrol officers. The routine was always the same, as if they had learned it in the academy: A two-man unit pulls you over and one officer approaches and asks to get in the front seat, totally contrary to proper procedure. After sitting down, the cop, who never makes eye contact with you, accuses you of some offense (perhaps even legitimate) and says, "This is normally a fifty-dollar fine but I can make it twenty right now."
To which I carelessly responded each time, "No thanks but I'll be glad to tell the judge of your fine offer."
All but once that tactic worked. The cops either didn't write the ticket or didn't turn it in at the end of their shift so I was never charged. However one cop scared the hell out of me with his unique style of solicitation. I was going up Larkin Street with a passenger, clearly being followed by a black & white for no known reason. I alerted my rider, a young lady, to what was happening. Larkin is three lanes wide and commercial vehicles are allowed under law to double-park momentarily to pick up and drop off passengers. Naturally a city like this couldn't work any other way.
She was getting out at Little Henry's restaurant at the corner of Sutter. I activated my emergency flashers, which all city motorists know means I am about to stop. The cop immediately lit me up with his lights before my passenger could pay and get out. The pig came right up to my window and started huffing and puffing about blocking traffic, in full view and earshot of pedestrians on the street and, of course, my rider. It was six o'clock in the evening and the streets were full. The officer was extremely agitated and clearly had another agenda. My passenger objected to his behavior and was threatened with arrest. I asked her to forget it and she got out. She refused to leave the scene, though, and she told the cop that she was "a witness" to his verbal assault of me, and the false ticketing.
This creep had all the earmarks of someone high on coke, speed or perhaps steroids; anger, bulging veins, threats. He made his solicitation out loud and in plain English.
"Give me fifty dollars and go on your way."
"What? I'm not giving you fifty dollars or anything else."
"Give me fifty bucks or I'll beat you to within an inch of your life!"
"Hey, I heard that," said the young lady from the sidewalk.
"Get outta here, bitch, before I run you in." He advanced on her while drawing his baton.
"Leave her alone." I shouted. "She's got nothing to do with this!"
He momentarily ignored me and shaking his stick in her face warned her off again. "How'd you like to spend the weekend in jail for obstruction?" he said to her.
"I'm going inside and call the police right away!" she came back.
"You do that, bitch, and you will be sorry the rest of your life!"
I really felt for her safety and encouraged her to leave. This was my problem and there was no need for her to get involved anymore. This guy was crazy.
"Leave her alone!" He turned toward me again while she ran into Henry's.
He demanded my "A" card and waybill; they always do.
"You're trip sheet's not filled out!" he hollered.
"I haven't been anywhere yet, I just got out of the garage," I answered sarcastically.
"Look you asshole, either give me the money or I'm going to follow you around all night writing citations. You're my new special project. Nobody tells me no!"
"Well I'm not giving you any money, and it would make my case against you if you did give me tickets all night!" I was being brave. This had worked before so I stood up to him.
The cop looked at my ID hard as if memorizing it then threw it back at me.
He leaned into my window right in my face but barely lowered his voice. "I'm gonna remember you, cabbie! You'd better get this cab off the street right now or I'm gonna find you in a lonely spot tonight and beat some sense into you! You'll learn not to say no to a cop!"
This whole time his partner never stepped out of his unit. His was probably more scared of the guy than I was.
I didn't wait for him to write a ticket. I threw the car in gear and peeled out of there, crossed three lanes of traffic at once so I could make the right turn onto Bush and come back down Hyde to the DeSoto garage on Geary Street. I fully expected him to chase me and I wanted to be in a well-lit place in front of witnesses when this freak went off on me again or arrested me or whatever he had in mind.
To my surprise, he didn't follow. I hung out at the garage for a while and had a cup of coffee trying to regain my composure. I was trembling. I couldn't pull myself together. It was a Friday night, the one shift of the week that all cabbies wait for, the golden horn of the taxi business. I couldn't do it. I couldn't drive that night. Besides being scared shitless, I was also so upset that I was unfit for duty. I paid the gates and gas out of my pocket, perhaps fifty dollars (strangely enough just the amount the cop demanded) and went home.
Naturally I couldn't complain to any government authority about this event. Besides, the only authority was the SFPD themselves and we were issued our hack licenses by them. They were notoriously corrupt. It would have only made things worse. I licked my wounds at home over a badly needed joint. After a few hours I went out to the Barleycorn. It was about five blocks up Larkin Street and I walked right past the scene of the crime. I looked around constantly, afraid that crazy cop would spot me.
Over pints of ale I told my story to the bar rats at the JB and received the usual unsolicited and truly strange advice.
"Sue 'em!" said one.
"Go to the feds!" another.
"No, no, take it straight to Mayor Feinstein's office," one more piped in.
Diane Feinstein was the incompetent wimp mayor at the time (before she became an incompetent wimp Senator.). She didn't have the vaguest idea what went on her city and knew nothing of what it was like to work. She was well into middle age before she got her first job, that of supervisor. Must be nice taking a twenty-five year vacation after college and then starting at the top. I should've thought of that.
Barleycorn's owner, Larry, gave me the best advice. He leaned in close to me. "Forget it," he whispered. Short, but profound. He didn't need to say more. I knew he was right, but I was going to think it over.
The bar rats were their usual selves that night; what else could they be? From them I discovered that Gary Blaylock was the best pitcher the Saint Louis Cardinals ever had. The Van Allen radiation belt makes space travel impossible and therefore the moon landings were a government hoax, and Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were gay. This, of course, sparked a lively debate. The bar was torn between the Huck faction and the Toms.
"No, no, you're all wrong Jim the slave was the queer! That's why he built the raft, kidnapped Huck and headed for New Orleans, the fag capital before San Francisco. He held Huck captive in a cave where he buggered him for a while," touted one of the odder rats.
"Oh, you're full of shit!" said a regular with a patch over one eye and blind in the other (he used to alternate the patch from one eye to the other every day). "Jim was bent on starting a slave revolt and was holding Tom and Huck for ransom to finance it," he said authoritatively.
I couldn't take much more. I had had a bad day and now I was going to have nightmares about a coked-out cop with an eye patch holding me captive in a cave while big Jim buggered me in the ass and Gary Blaylock pitched baseballs at me. I headed for home.
I know it was silly, but I was afraid to walk down Larkin Street to my pad at Ellis and Larkin. I'd have to walk right by Henry's again and I didn't want to be reminded of my ordeal with the cop earlier. I went over to Hyde, a parallel street, and headed down off of Nob Hill. I'm not sure what time it was, perhaps midnight. Hyde was quiet and dark in contrast to the livelier Larkin. I figured nothing could harm me this way.
At Bush and Hyde I heard the unmistakable sound of a gunshot and instinctively looked up. I was at the corner of Bush and could see clearly down hill to the next corner, Sutter. I saw a body crumpled on the sidewalk and the legs of a man disappearing around the corner. Two other men came sprinting out of the Overflo Bar across the intersection of the shooting, obviously chasing the assailant. The shooter must not have known that The Overflo was a cop bar; very few other people were welcome in there. I figured that whoever did this would be caught quickly.
I was at first concerned for my safety but the bad guy had run off and surely more people would emerge from both the bar and the Granada Hotel on the corner. I picked up my pace but was surprised that only one person came out, arriving just before me. It was the night clerk from the Granada, someone I vaguely knew.
On the sidewalk was the body of a senior citizen in her nightclothes with a freshly lit cigarette by her side. Her slippers were sitting neatly at her feet as she had been blown out of them by the blast. There was a single, small bullet hole in her forehead between her eyes while the whole back of her head was gone. All of her blood was running down the inclined sidewalk from Hyde onto Sutter Street. Upon looking closer I could see that she was Chinese, difficult to tell as her skin was ghost-white from blood loss.
The clerk and I didn't exchange comments. We were both in shock. The Granada is a combination hotel, residence club and retirement home. There is no smoking allowed anywhere in the hotel, including the rooms. I had many times seen residents outside on the corner for a smoke I think even this one. Obviously this little old lady was just having one before bed.
I looked down Sutter Street in the direction the three men ran and saw nothing. They had evidently turned the corner at Larkin. The pursuers were right on his tail and they were young guys so I knew he'd be caught. Surprisingly no one else came out of the Overflo. I could see through the big picture window about forty feet away, the patrons and bartender ignoring what was going on outside. In a society where a fender bender attracts a small crowd, why was a room full of off-duty cops not coming over to the scene of a homicide?
The sight was sickening and sad. I had been drinking and I had already had one bad experience with the cops that night. There was no need for me to hang around, I couldn't ID the shooter, there were better witnesses than I and he was probably already in custody. I left right away.
I awoke the next day at my usual early hour of between noon and one and headed out the door to my daytime hangout, the Turk and Larkin Deli. I greeted the owner, Mike, poured my own coffee, grabbed the used daily newspapers off the counter (a benefit to getting up late, free papers) and settled into my personal table in the corner. Mike's wife, Jean, sat with me and made small talk. I told her of the horrible crime I had witnessed the night before. Jean was a hard-core Christian and went off to pray for the victim right away. Mike made me a falafel with tahini, pickles and catsup called falafel a la Johnny in my honor. I was the only customer to eat them that way. I ate here every day; it was the closest thing I had to a home or family.
I immediately scanned the paper for the murder story, being obsessed with the whys and wherefores that this innocent lady had died for. After all, what type of mugger would try to rob an old woman in her pajamas? Clearly she didn't have any money on her. I doubt if it was a molestation attempt gone awry. What could have been the motive? Deep into the recesses of the Chronicle, in an obscure hidden corner was a small blurb:
WOMAN JUMPS FROM ROOF OF BUILDING
"What?" I was flabbergasted. "How could this be? It's obviously a cover-up, but why? Who are the authorities protecting?" I said out loud to Mike.
I quickly put the story together. Of course this is conjecture, but I think it is solid:
An off-duty cop, probably drunk or coked-up and belligerent, gets into an argument with some of his bar buddies and goes outside waving his gun around and fires off a round which accidentally hits the woman. No, that can't be right as I saw the assailant was right near her and she was shot between the eyes. You don't have marksmanship like that by accident. What could the motive have been? I mulled over whether I should come forward with what I knew. I was still trying to decide what to do about the cop who threatened me, and now this.
Mike was from one of those Mideast countries where the cops did what they wanted, including murder, and he advised me to stay out of it. His deli was a hangout for the employees of the Federal Building across the street and there were always judges, FBI agents and other federal law-enforcement types in there. I debated with myself whether I should approach one of them. I knew a homicide had been committed and the local authorities were covering it up.
Shamefully I chose to stay quiet. My life was fragile at the time. I was staying in a flophouse, driving cab by night, living day to day, week to week. The police issued my license to work. If I wasn't killed outright by one of them, my boss would probably fire me and no other cab company would take me in. The cops had the cab companies, like so many other businesses, in their hip pocket. I was outgunned and outclassed.
Mike repeated his advice.
"Mind your own business, Cousin, you saw nothing, you know nothing. A blind donkey is worth more than three dead camels!"
I couldn't argue with that bit of old country logic.
Actually, it was sound advice. Not only wasn't I going to expose the killing, I also decided not to say anything about the cop who threatened me the night before. I was so bothered by these two events that I couldn't bring myself to work for three nights. I called Grover at DeSoto and told him I wasn't coming in. Later I had to pay Marv $150 for those nights off.
I spent the next few nights at the Barleycorn leering at the waitress, Anne's, butt while debating with the rats the merits of the Electoral College and whether or not "McGarrett" would ever run for governor of Hawaii.
Over twenty years later I am still troubled about my silence. There is no statute of limitations for murder and I don't drive a cab any more.
Perhaps I should ask Larry's advice again.
Published June 2005