When Cesar Reigned

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

A certain bitterness and acrimony had overtaken the city during that era. People wearing ties were called "scum-sucking yuppies," and people without enough money to afford to live there were thrown out on the streets. But Superbooty did not ask, "Where Is the Love?"

At a time when more and more San Franciscans suffered an ambiguous feeling that their city was headed in myriad wrong directions, Superbooty failed to implore his followers to "Turn the Beat Around."

Instead, in his rare public appearances, Superbooty descended into a perfect-pitch riff of bureaucratese, striking eight-bar political phrases that contained a toneful lack of meaning.

So, Cesar decided, Superbooty would be Minister for Administrative Process Development Outreach, a title that would change every time somebody began believing that it actually meant something.

While all the Freakos were essentially friendly, one possessed a personality so ingratiating he could have insinuated himself into a boxing match. And while the other Freakos certainly had physical presence, none of them was of such stature, and such an elegant dresser, as J.R. Manuel.

The owner of two Jaguar automobiles and a seemingly endless supply of double-breasted suits, Manuel was the kind of man you want to be seen with; and with whom you want to see eye to eye. Despite obvious political talent, he was not conversant about many city issues -- he was no Joel Ventresca.

But Manuel was so likable that he proved of great use to the Junta. J.R. Manuel would be Ambassador to the United Nations.

Among the well-meaning band of Freakos, David Martz was the most deeply earnest. A lawyer by profession, Martz spent his free time acting as an uncle to a neighbor family of Vietnamese children. During the campaign, he lent his couch to an acquaintance recovering from a drug problem. He was the only one of the candidates to effortlessly volunteer that he did not know anything about numerous issues.

"I have ideas, but other people have ideas, too," he deferred.

A good man, to be sure. He didn't seem to have the pantalones to be potentate. But in a town where putative good intentions were used to squander millions, it seemed like there might be a place for a man as worthy as David Martz.

So he was made Minister of Largess.

Among the earnest candidates, Jim Reid came in a close second. He was quick to say, for example, that he had once filed for bankruptcy. Reid stayed more than a week in a homeless shelter, just to show he cared. He spent entire days on public transit. He was articulate, erudite, and seemed to understand city problems.

"The reality is, rents are going to come down if you get rid of rent control," he said, adding that he could stem the rude-bus-driver plague, too: "If enough people say, 'This guy was rude to me,' this guy is going to be fired."

Sound notions sure, but ahead of their time.

Reid did have a redeeming feature that was to make him a valued member of the Cesarean Junta. He was broke. Not just damn-I'll-have-to-take-the-bus-to-work broke. He was down, dirty, eating-baloney-for-dinner broke, according to rumor then scurrying through the campaign circuit.

So Cesar appointed him Minister of Finance. In a city lousy with juice politicians, the Ministerio de Finanzas needed someone so broke he'd be satisfied embezzling peanuts.

Martin Eng, an oddly passionate local landlord, enjoyed characterizing himself as an Internet entrepreneur. On www.modelswatch.com, for instance, photos showed Eng standing awkwardly beside beauty pageant winners.

"I'm planning on doing an IPO," he exclaimed.

Eng was a visionary, too: He was the first to warn the public about secret government plans to implant computer chips under people's skin.

"The technology is here today that they could put a chip in your car or your body and track your movements all day," Eng explained. "They could put cameras on every street corner. They might find an excuse if they find enough terrorists. I'm just a visionary into the future, and I think it can be done."

Naturally, Eng was made Minister of Technology.

Finally, there was William Felzer, a deep thinker -- a poet even -- who came to play perhaps the most important role in the new era. He would be Merlin to Cesar's Arthur, Baker to Cesar's Reagan. He would remain through seven successive administrations, thanks to the life-extending properties subsequently ascribed to the health-supplement Viagra.

Eighty-three years old, Felzer spent his spare time -- well all of his time -- devising singular solutions to city problems. He would reroute trolley lines; rebuild the community college system, close down all the high schools, and send former high school students to college; vacated high schools would be used to house the homeless.

Felzer, it was deemed, would become Sorcerer to the King, a post that involved sitting alone in his chamber conjuring new ideas.

There were other Freakos, too, if memory serves. But at this advanced age, it doesn't serve me well.

And so it came to pass that the Cesarean Junta ruled with an iron, yet benevolent hand, meting out wisdom, justice, freedom, and truth to all the city's citizens. And the ministers, who at first felt a little awkward in their new positions of power, eventually took to their Ministerios with aplomb.

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