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Stealing the Scene 

When the mayor doesn't show for his acting debut in the Tenderloin, the TL steals the scene

Wednesday, Dec 22 2004
Now that Gavin Newsom has carved out a spot on the shortlist of nationally recognized mayors -- Daley of Chicago, Bloomberg of New York, Barry of D.C. Corrections (our historical favorite) -- what's next for our silver-tongued, camera-philic city steward? A Senate seat? A run at the Governator? Wrong and wrong.

Dog Bites says forget politics. With the mayor's looks, connections, and luck, we've got a better idea. Why, it's acting, of course.

We were in the Tenderloin last week, ready for Newsom's cinematic debut in It's All in a Night's Work, a local production about -- what else? -- booze, sex, and death. The mayor would play himself in a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of a bar (in real life, Elements Bar on Geary Street). Though it wasn't much of a stretch -- all Newsom had to do was ham it up with a couple of actors -- it was a nice way to pop his thespian cherry.

Still, the rookie production crew was a little nervous. The director, a goateed San Francisco State film student, had marched down Geary an hour earlier with gaffers trailing him like security guards, ever mindful of the movie world's rigid caste system. The director chatted tensely on his cell phone. It was his first feature, a welcome break from running the Subway shop he owns in the San Francisco airport. Someone asked him if the movie would be ready for Sundance.

"Cannes," he said.

The sky had gone dark, and the halogens cast bright arcs of light across the wood-and-brick bar, sandwiched between a flophouse and an Asian rubdown shop. Movie lights attract gawkers, and soon a handful of tramps, massage girls, and eccentrics began to circle close. Each moment of mayoral abeyance became an opportunity for them to earn an extra buck, a minute of fame, or a chance to badger the better-offs who make movies, even low-budget ones.

"Where's Big Mike?" demanded a leather-faced man, pushing a shopping cart and scowling over his beard.

"We don't know Big Mike," said one of the gaffers, a former Ford mechanic who now lays tile for a living. His eyes darted nervously. Was this a threat?

"I don't believe you don't know Big Mike," leather-face spat, angry now. "He runs this fucking place!"

Another man, rangy and with a shaved skull, limped up on a bum leg and began jabbering about lighting. He said his name was Shawn and then limped down the block to the shelter where he lives to pick up a "super-powerful" light of his own, a 1,000-watt monster that'd make Newsom's makeup drip. Shawn had almost burned down his mom's house with the light a couple of years ago, sometime after he got out of the Army and before he got clean.

"Now I use it to dry my clothes," he said. He hoped one of the gaffers would buy it from him for $25.

Just then, a sleek black car pulled up to the curb, crunching over broken gin bottles in the street. Excitement surged through the crowd. It must be the mayor, an hour late but here at last to wow with poise and pearly whites.

No such luck. It was actor/producer/ writer/bartender/restaurateur Johnny Metheny, toting the red ribbon the mayor would soon cut. "I knew him way back," Metheny said of Newsom, putting the bag of ribbon down and surveying his crew. "We'll get him."

Metheny's the kind of guy who smiles a lot and drives around with a trunk full of flavored vodka; the kind of guy who drops $200,000 on a new hobby and promises to produce a city official. At this point, though, Dog Bites knew the real star wouldn't show. Maybe he never intended to. More important matters. Urgent meetings with Dianne Feinstein. Plans of political conquest to come.

But didn't Newsom see he was meant for Hollywood? That's where the real influence is, the big money, the global oomph. Didn't he want to be the first to nail the reverse crossover, from politics to acting?

Apparently not.

"I kind of knew in the back of my head this would happen," the director grumbled. He turned violently professional, pulled his brown Phoenix Suns cap low, and locked down his digital camera on a tripod. He grouped his actors in front of the bar. They would soldier on. They would do the scene without Newsom. They would ...

"Where's the ribbon?" the director shouted. "It was right there." He pointed at the spot on the sidewalk next to the bar. Metheny's bag had vanished.

Panic flooded the set. This was the film's final scene, and it was devolving fast. The crew scrambled. Metheny roared. Outside the arc of light, Shawn fidgeted, then sighed. He opened his backpack and pulled out the ribbon.

"I'm not a thief," he said, handing over the prize. "Just an honest hustler."

Three months ago, Shawn relapsed and smoked some crack. That day, while rummaging for bottles in an alley, he sliced open his leg, cut it so deep he could look down the gash and see his Achilles tendon. "Looked like a corn husk," he said.

His leg was still healing as he stood gingerly to the side of the shoot, quiet now as a pretty actress snipped through the ribbon on multiple takes. What happened to him was a sign, he said. A warning to get straight. Back at the shelter, he'd changed into his best clothes. One of the gaffers might buy his light. If he waited long enough, the mayor might even show up. (Luke O'Brien)

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John Mecklin


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