The Last Seduction

Spurned by term limitations, Willie Brown turns his political affections on San Francisco. But how long will our small-town ways hold his fancy?

Myres takes me aside. "Look, this ain't no bullshit," he begins. "Let me tell you about black folk. This [campaign] goes way beyond the mayor's race. We're finally going to win one legally. We don't need to deal drugs or none of that stuff."

Brown finishes his speech and returns to the autographs. Gene McFarlane, a City College student, approaches. "Can I get a word with you?" Brown nods, and the two huddle, face to face.

"What can you do about black-on-black crime?" McFarlane asks. "I have friends from Harbor Road and other friends from over on Oakdale who are shooting each other."

"What?! What about?" Brown asks.
"It's all about nothing," McFarlane answers. "I got friends selling crack just 'cause there ain't nothing else to do."

"I will address the issue," Brown answers. "I don't know how, but we'll do it."

Back in his black Ford Explorer, Brown is uncharacteristically silent as Myres peels out for the Fiesta Italia on Pier 45. Sure, he's had a long day -- 14 events. But his silence is about something else, something weighing on his mind.

"Those people are really in need," he says to no one in particular. "That guy, he, he, tore my heart apart.

"Will I be able to put together the resources that will answer the need?" he says, thinking aloud. "You think about that hostile environment, the need factor, the need. I've got to do something to give them evidence that the system works. They're rolling the dice on me. They're betting the farm on me."

Brown's importance to the black community goes beyond symbolism. Bayview-Hunters Point, the Western Addition, the Fillmore, all the black neighborhoods are the orphans of San Francisco politics. Since the '60s, when the black population in the city began to dwindle to its current electorally insignificant 10 percent, mayor after white mayor could safely pay lip service to the community. There was no price to pay for their disregard.

The community is sure those cold political calculations will not play into Brown's thinking. They know his history, his trajectory. White progressives with their homes and their safe jobs can fret all they want about special interest money and client lists. But none of that matters here. Here, they know about Mineola.

Willie Brown grew up on the black side of Mineola in segregated Texas. He lived with his grandmother, Anna Lee Collins, at 511 Baker, while his mother worked in Dallas as a maid.

His uncles on his mother's side -- Rodrick "Son" Collins and Rembert "Itsie" Collins -- made bootleg booze called "chalk," made out of "peach holes," in the cellar of Anna Lee's house and ran a nearby gambling joint called "The Shack."

"I had one good suit," Brown recalls. "I had one good pair of shoes for Sunday at church." Already a fastidious dresser, he kept his two pair of khakis well pressed. In the summer, Brown says, he would pick cotton, berries, and watermelon.

"I saved up that money and bought a bike," he says. "My grandmother would keep the money we made and dole it out to us."

On the weekends, Brown says, he and his friends would go down to the black movie house, the LeRoy. (The Select was for whites.) Brown would sit in the "buzzards roost," as he and his friends called the balcony, and watch western serials.

"It would always end with the hero in trouble and you'd come back the next week to see how it turned out," he says.

Students in Brown's school -- Mineola Colored High School -- studied from the used and frayed textbooks the white schools had discarded. (He once referred to his segregated education as "the shits.") But Brown was an exceptionally bright student with a hunger for reading and a quickness with figures.

But Brown worried his family with his penchant for going uptown to the commercial strip in Mineola, a place of whites and not the place for a witty black teen-ager. Brown's sister, Lovia C., told Bee reporter James D. Richardson, "He would always be uptown, and we would always be afraid for him. [His grandmother] didn't want anything to happen to him. But Willie just said whatever came to his mind."

Lovia C. told Richardson of the time a white man asked Brown, "Say junior, what time is it?" using the pejorative term for black males. Willie didn't respond. The white man asked again and Willie snapped back, "You guessed my name, now you can guess the time."

Brown made his money at a shoeshine stand outside Parker's Barber Shop, and he remembers that about half the white customers would attempt to humiliate him by throwing quarters -- tips, if you will -- in a nearby spittoon. "I'd just leave 'em there," Brown says. "I knew I'd have to clean out the spittoon at the end of the day anyway."

Sometimes the customers would offer to toss a quarter in the spittoon only if Brown would reach in for it. Did he? "Sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn't," Brown says.

Those shoeshine customers are by far his bitterest memory of Mineola. "Those cowboys were really nasty people, really nasty, just really nasty people."

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