When Cesar Reigned

An aging journalist remembers 1999, when an election became a revolution, and the city changed forever

As he heard the rumble of the collapsing City Hall dome, Cesar knew it was time to act. He called the Freakos to the Financial District, telling them to await a sign. A huge convoy of trucks, which during the campaign had toured the city playing merengue for the Cesar Ascarrunz campaign, was positioned on Market Street. Each of the 46 trucks contained a 16-piece orchestra, and all were hooked to the Mother of All Public Address Systems.

A longtime bandleader, Cesar clambered atop a trolley car. He raised his arms and synchronized the orchestras into the first bars of Juan Luis Guerra's "Burbujas de Amor."

For three seconds, the entire city stopped moving, then stockbrokers, housewives, Web designers, social workers, prostitutes, oil magnates, bus drivers, police officers -- everyone -- poured into the streets, half-giddy with joy, half-enraged at what they had nearly allowed their city to become.

"Se ve! Se siente! Cesar es omnipotente!" they shouted, in a cry that shook the Transamerica Pyramid. "You can see it! You can feel it! Cesar is omnipotent!"

There were elections the next day, sure. But there was little point. By afternoon everyone had taken Cesar Ascarrunz campaign fliers, cut them into a heart shape, and pinned them to their lapels. (By evening, the fliers were going for $100 each on the street.)

And on Nov. 3, 1999, Cesar got down to business. In his heart, the Lion knew he could not rule alone. Despite his boundless charisma and intellect, Cesar lacked a flair for personal organization.

So, he would choose a Junta, with himself as Lider Maximo, and the fellow Freakos as aides-de-camp. Care was required to ensure that the right Freakos were assigned the proper jobs. While each Freako possessed special talents, some of them had -- using the vernacular of the day -- a few extra balls bouncing around in their heads.

Though the Freakos had been largely invisible to the people of the city during the months leading up to Nov. 1, 1999, one had made occasional sorties into the public mind. Her name was Lucrecia Bermudez, an imposing sprite of a woman who achieved brief prominence during a debate between the Siphoning Incumbent, the Bird Man, and the VenEM. A small woman, Bermudez carried a large bullhorn, and incited a bit of tussling among the debate audience. This excited journalists, who briefly made her so famous that "I just might even vote for that bullhorn lady" became a disenfranchised rallying cry.

An impressive public speaker, in private Bullhorn Lady seemed to transform. She was constantly accompanied by a mysterious Argentine Svengali, the tall, erudite publisher of a local leftist newspaper, who would finish her sentences when she became confused. And Bullhorn Lady was quick to confusion.

"I would embark on a massive program of low-income housing construction," she once declared.

Where?

Along Leavenworth Street, she explained.

"How many units would you build?" I remember asking her.

"I wouldn't add any," she explained. "I would refurbish the ones already there."

Sadly, it appeared that Bullhorn Lady was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. And far from being the kind of genial simpleton everybody likes to have around, she was the sort who became belligerent and defensive when confused.

At first this alarmed Cesar. Did he really need a court fool? But then he pondered:

Not good at thinking for herself, yet good at absorbing slogans? A person who can be told what she thinks, and regurgitate ideas with the sort of aplomb that makes the message palatable to the masses?

Bullhorn Lady became Minister of Information.

Another Freako had floated hazily in and out of the public consciousness during the weeks before the revolution. His name was Joel Ventresca, and as a former president of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighbor-hoods, he seemed knowledgeable about issues discussed in "public debates," now known as "Sit Coms."

"I've spent most of my adult life working to improve the quality of life" in the city, he would say, referring to his years of advocacy on behalf of the now-extinct NIMBYs. "I have credibility." And, he had big plans.

Ventresca would curtail the construction of office buildings in the downtown area, where most of the city's people worked. He would turn the city's decayed port region into a maritime redevelopment district.

Water-related jobs were better for the city than office-related jobs, Ventresca seemed to be saying. But he refused to explain why he thought this so.

Ventresca was not a charismatic man, perfunctory in both speech and manner. But Cesar knew what to do.

Ventresca was an uninspiring, yet seemingly intelligent man who wanted the city to redirect development for reasons unknown. What sort of person asks the public to allocate billions of dollars to programs with no explanation?

A Department of Defense bureaucrat, of course.

Joel Ventresca was pronounced Secretary of the Navy.

Among the Freakos, Mark "Superbooty" O'Hara had shown the greatest early promise, but it became clear that he was not a man who knew how to seize opportunity. The leader of a local band that played only pop hits from the 1970s, he might have become Minister of Culture, or even led the revolution, had he capitalized on the trove of aphorisms at his fingertips.

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