When Cesar Reigned

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

If I squeeze my eyelids together until the lashes touch, I can still see the silhouette of a lone student facing down a Muni bus in Union Square. I can see the solid figure of a middle-aged man standing on the roof of a Market Street trolley, his arms outstretched. "Ce - Tsar! Ce - Tsar," an oceanlike throng shouts over and over and over again, until the logic of its chant becomes so irresistible as to transform the world.

I can see the collapsing dome of City Hall, the screaming crowds fleeing the Great Flip-Out, and the mysterious cadaver retrieved, accidentally, from a manhole long after history had forgotten its name.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

It has been 50 years since the revolution, I am 84, and syphilis will soon take my brain. There will be nobody who remembers that time, when we watched a single man grip the reins of history and steer us toward all that is modern and good and true in this, the year 2050.

I was a reporter for the World Media Conspiracy, then quaintly called SF Weekly, and like many of my colleagues, I had drooped into a cynical, journalistic malaise.

During the final moments of the last millennium, an election weighed on this small pueblo like a curse. After years of tyranny, deception, and corruption, citizens were faced with dismal prospects.

They could vote for the incumbent mayor, who had so politicized city business that his associates were under investigation by federal agents. During those days, lucre ran like streams through the city, yet these tributaries all seemed to wend their way through the mayor's office before reaching the sea.

They could choose the main challenger, a man who belonged to a breed once as common as flies, but which disappeared after the Great Cesarean Pogrom: the psychotic, multimillionaire political consultant with delusions of even greater grandeur. A birdlike man, his face would produce floods of the dead language now remembered as consultantspeak. Yet his hair never moved. As he talked, his lifeless eyes bespoke a character kept under the tightest possible control. Citizens would recall this fact following the Great Flip-Out of Nov. 1, 1999.

Or they could choose the Vengeful Ex-Mayor (VenEM), a man who had lost his post to the Siphoning Incumbent four years prior, not least because he was, in the vernacular of that era, a couple of quarts short of a lube job.

This dance of charlatans took place during an era of momentous, yet almost invisible, upheaval. The population was growing by thousands every day, yet the NIMBYs -- a tribe all but forgotten after the Pogrom -- fought tooth and nail to keep apartment buildings from going up. Rents rose, impoverishing all but a few. Many lived in the streets. Others had to leave the city.

The pueblo was infested with heroin, cocaine, and other abuses, to the evident delight of the city's chief prosecutor. Gripped by a strange mental wildness, some blamed the city's ills on Standard Living Units, then called "live-work lofts."

Troubled schools held garage sales to buy books, while corporations were undercharged hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes. And the city's transit system: Well, we all still remember that.

And so it went, with mayoral candidates protesting that they could house people without building homes, better educate youngsters without saying how, and improve transit by adding spaces for Illegal Transit-Impeding Units, then called "automobiles."

It seemed that the end of the millennium would herald an era of walking civic death.

But then something odd occurred.

People awoke on the morning of Nov. 1, 1999, and felt in the air an electric current so powerful that their mouths tasted of copper. Passing strangers acknowledged each other with intimate glances, as if sharing a secret they did not yet understand. Everything that morning -- leaves, street signs, water, grass -- seemed to shimmer and move. Yet the air was absolutely still.

As they happened, one by one, few grasped the import of the trinity of events that we now know simply as the Occurrences.

First, an aide to the Bird Man made an early morning mistake. She may have arrived late with coffee, failed to put toner in the copier, not curtsied; nobody knows. But everyone recalls what happened next. His neck striped with bulging veins, the tightly wound Bird Man reached into his desk, pulled out a loaded brace of MAC-9s, and ran into the streets wearing a pair of bandoleers and screaming at the top of his lungs. Before he could squeeze off a round, he was struck and killed by a bus.

Because the citizenry had half-expected something like this from the Bird Man, they paid it no mind.

Later in the day, the Siphoning Incumbent gave what would be his final speech at City Hall, which had been restored at a cost of $600 million, in part to gild the Grand Dome. Midspeech, those present heard a crackling sound, which they at first confused with the electricity they had felt all morning. They glanced at each other, then began to run.

As the mayor continued speaking, the dome fell. It was as if all the patronage, all the payoffs, the inside construction deals, and the sweetheart contracts, had incrementally added to the molecular weight of the gold on the dome until it became so heavy even acres of Italianate marble could not hold it up.

Also on that day, we don't know when, the Vengeful Ex-Mayor walked into an open manhole. Nobody realized this until much later, when his body was recovered and an autopsy revealed a liver engorged with bile.

Pandemonium ensued in the moments following the Collapse of the Dome. Even those who knew nothing of it ran out into the streets and began yelling, without comprehending exactly why. A strange sense of tragedy -- and liberation -- filled the air. One student brazenly placed himself in front of a Muni bus, defying the all-powerful transit agency.

Amid the bedlam, Cesar Ascarrunz, with the strong-armed help of his co-conspirators, scaled the side of a Market Street trolley and raised his arms.

"Soy leon," he cried. "I am a lion."

"Ce - Tsar! Ce - Tsar! Ce - Tsar!" the crowd replied.

And so, as everybody knows, the Junta came to power.

As often happens at historical crossroads such as these, a man possessed of sufficient charisma, vision, and courage can chart the course of history. In this city, at that time, that man was Cesar Ascarrunz.

Before the day of the Occurrences, Cesar was among a tiny band of revolutionaries who had been maneuvering unseen in the hills and valleys of the city, making plans, preparing for the fateful Election Day. These members of the Revolutionary Forgotten Candidates Front or Frente Revolucionario de Candidatos Olvidados were popularly known by the acronym FRCO, pronounced "Freako."

Virtually invisible and with no hope of success, these Freakos spoke individually to grammar school classrooms. They argued with each other at debates no one attended. Among the Freakos, it was Cesar who had the leader's soul, the sort of charisma that made his company impossible to resist. "Olia de naftalina," Cesar warmly noted after chatting with the incumbent mayor at a debate in Golden Gate Park. "His suit smelled of mothballs."

During conversation, Cesar was known for accentuating points about his personal background -- or his plans to have the National Guard patrol the streets -- by gently and repeatedly touching the hand and garments of an interviewer. He was a man who relentlessly flagged down attractive women, earnestly telling them about his candidacy in a manner possessed of such grace that at least one female office worker cut a Cesar campaign flier into the shape of a heart and hung it on her computer.

"My agenda is to take care of all the people," Cesar said.

And the women understood.

A native of Bolivia, Cesar had come to the Bay Area in 1960, and attended UC Berkeley and the University of San Francisco. A master of seven tongues, he became a nightclub mogul, at one point running eight clubs. He was famous for his weekday and Sunday benefit events, which became a financial mainstay for every sort of San Francisco charity. Cesar's Latin Palace, a cavernous dance hall decorated with glitter balls and neon signs, was the most famous of the salsa clubs.

"It was really nice," recalled one Mission barfly. "It was the only place you could get drinks after hours." For this bit of benevolence, Cesar's liquor license was yanked several times, and the police once tried to shut him down. Like any good revolutionary, he beat the rap.

But in 1997, Cesar decided to retire, taking the $2.5 million he got for selling his club and dedicating himself to his first love, running for mayor. In 1999, he launched his third, and final, such bid.

In a pueblo known for dissembling double-think, Cesar proved refreshingly frank, and bracingly well-informed. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel," he would say, motioning toward the broad expanse of expired industrial land that then spread across the city's southwest end. "When the population is increasing, what do you do with a specific space? You have to have buildings at 10 stories. We could have a beautiful Riviera here, like in Brazil."

As for transport, "limit traffic downtown," Cesar said, unknowingly repeating the mantra of New Urbanism theorists worldwide. He was, historians later agreed, a natural. During his reign, he would go on to divide and conquer the tangle of neighborhood interests that had kept the city small.

"I am a strong person. I am a lion," he explained. "These organizations are politically motivated. They don't care about the lives of other people. They just want to jack up prices on their homes. The mayor has to tie his pants and say, 'Am I going to make thousands of people happy, or 300 people happy?'"

Cesar would not waste money on $600 million City Hall renovations, instead building a giant, downtown concert hall, with proceeds going to worthy charities.

"It would be a giant Palladium," Cesar said. "Thousands of people would come."

On the morning of the revolution, everyone felt the magical electricity. But only Cesar Ascarrunz understood its meaning.

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.

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.

Lucrecia Bermudez appeared much less confused after Martin Eng developed a tiny bullhorn with speech-and-thought-synthesizing features.

J.R. Manuel so ingratiated himself with world leaders that Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America joined the government of Cesar. (Canada, never an actual country, joined a commonwealth.)

Jim Reid stole, sure. But only three Bic pens which he accidentally brought home from work each month.

David Martz, an attorney after all, inevitably lost his earnestness. But even during his corrupt and cynical years, the Minister of Largess was more effective at delivering social services than the former good-old-boy charity/government network.

Joel Ventresca, Secretary of the Navy, managed to secure funding for a program called Sea Wars. Nobody could explain exactly what it did, or why it cost billions of dollars.

William Felzer kept to his chambers Merlin-like, emerging occasionally to announce a program or read a poem.

Martin Eng, when he wasn't helping Lucrecia, directed the chip-implant conspiracy.

And Cesar Ascarrunz, well, he did magnificent things. He built his Palladium, where thousands of people drank past sunrise -- legally. He cinched up his pantalones and vanquished NIMBY neighborhood associations, the Municipal Transit Workers' Union, Illegal Transit-Impeding Unit drivers, and Tenderloin landlords. With Felzer's help, he rebuilt the school system. He built his Riviera, creating such a great supply of housing that rents declined citywide. Nobody had to live on the street. Citizens walked, bicycled, and rode on an efficient transit system.

There was happiness in the land.

This all happened so long ago, but I can still feel the excitement and boundless promise of that day, Nov. 1, 1999.

Now, sitting in my 15th-story SOMA Riviera apartment, I see a great and prosperous city of 3 million people. I see a Mecca of diversity; a Venice of the arts; a cultural Mount Olympus; the Most Beautiful City in the World.

Or at least that's what I see when I close my eyes.

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