By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
She took the stage at the Coed Romper Room & Cigar Emporium dressed like a Royal Canadian Mountie. Change fell out of men's pockets when she unbuckled her holster, and by the end of the act it was just her, the black boots, and a nightstick.
I'd always heard that San Francisco was a city of healing, not hurting, but her downcast look when she left the stage told me she was in a world of hurt. I'd only been in town for three hours, and had spent all of it in the Coed Romper Room, except the time it took to hoof it from the Greyhound station to Market Street.
I bluffed my way backstage, flashing an old press pass from a pansy-ass East Coast magazine where I once worked, a place that wouldn't let me through the door now even with a platoon of Royal Canadian Mounties.
She was standing in a hallway, under a burned-out exit sign, counting her cash. Smoke curled about her head, and she looked up at me with eyes blacker than a politician's heart. Her name was Simba, she said, but she would identify herself no further.
She hadn't always been a professional entertainer. She used to have a steady day job, with a 401(k) and all the Papermates she could stuff into her purse. That was back in Ohio, when she was an executive secretary at Chiquita Brands International Inc., the biggest banana importer on the entire North American continent.
But now she was on the run, hiding out in the fleshpots of San Francisco, trying to stay one step ahead of the men she knew Chiquita had scouring the country for her.
"Meet me tomorrow at Red's Java Hut by the South Beach Marina," she said. "You are clearly the one journalist ordained by fate to hear my story. I will repeat it to no others, ever. Any editor or fact-checker who calls me is going to eat a bullet. A .45. I'm not kidding."
She showed up the next day, late, wearing Nikes and carrying a pumpkin about the size of Alan Greenspan's head. It was hollow. From inside she gingerly removed a stack of cassette tapes, held together by green rubber bands.
"Voice-mail messages from Chiquita," she said. "I stole them and smuggled them out of the company's world headquarters. You, of course, had no prior knowledge of this theft, did not participate, and as such have no culpability for my acts."
A street vendor happened by, hawking stolen Sony Walkmans. I bought one, and we listened to the tapes together, she and I sharing a headset.
As boats sailed by and traffic hummed across the Bay Bridge, I heard Chiquita executives discussing a plan they had code-named "Operation Nefarious Plan."
Chiquita, according to the tapes, was recruiting former CIA operatives, many of whom had lost their jobs after the San Jose Mercury News blew the lid off the agency's secret program to flood the streets of urban ghettos with crack cocaine.
One of the rogue agents had ties to CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, and had learned the dirty truth about the U.S. military's top secret supply of sarin nerve gas. Because of an unfortunate error by a clerk, a shipment of sarin headed for Vietnam instead was mistakenly buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
"I know a columnist at the Boston Globe," one Chiquita executive can be heard saying on the tapes. "She's a helluva writer, damn near Pulitzer material. I think she'd be willing to fake up a little story for us."
Within days, news reports surfaced that the tomb had to be opened to resolve a dispute over the remains of a soldier. The sarin gas fell into Chiquita's hands.
Under the next phase of Operation Nefarious Plan, Chiquita began obtaining a fleet of GMC pickup trucks. "Did you see the Dateline report?" one company executive crowed on the tapes. "You just thump those suckers on the side and they blow sky-high."
Canisters containing sarin gas were to be mounted in about a dozen of the pickups, which would then be parked outside the homes of Latin American politicians who refused to grant Chiquita a complete monopoly over their country's fruit crops.
"It won't take long for someone to run into 'em," one executive says on the tapes. "You know how those people drive down there."
But shortly before the plot was to be executed, Simba happened upon the voice-mail messages. Desperate to expose the plan, Simba turned to Linda Tripp. Tripp taped Simba's calls, but found the charges unbelievable. Then, desperate for money for her legal defense fund, Tripp sold the tapes to Chiquita.
That's when Simba went on the lam, and that's why we found ourselves sitting by a marina on San Francisco Bay, two forsaken souls.
The sun was setting, and it was coming time for Simba's shift at the Coed Romper Room. "I'm sorry I must leave," she said. "You are a dear, sweet man, wise beyond your years, but you must never try to find me again."
She tucked the pumpkin under her arm and walked away.
I don't think she even heard the screech of the tires from the Muni bus. Then again, maybe the driver never hit the brakes. Simba and pumpkin were splattered across the Embarcadero. A passing street sweeper, veering to avoid the carnage, sucked up the tapes.
But at least I knew the truth.
Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon.