Blanchfield sees Cheney as someone who has bettered passengers' lives: "There are a lot of improvements directly related to him." Intriguingly, one of those improvements was Cheney's yearslong drive to clean up Muni's overtime practices which exposed, among other things, that Blanchfield's overtime haul put his income on par with Muni's then-general manager.

Not everyone takes kindly to that sort of thing: "Mike had a lot of real good ideas," Blanchfield continues, "but if you don't get along with everybody in meetings, they take away your chair and you're not invited no more."

And that's why Cheney went to the press or the law, or wielded that possibility like a cudgel, when Muni spent hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing wheelchair lift equipment its own workers could have crafted for pennies on the dollar; crippled service by warehousing buses with minor deficiencies for months on end; gamed vehicle safety inspections; or left functioning cameras on the shelves while broken ones missed beatings, robberies, or people on the tracks.

Cheney's own illustration of how SailWing Engines may be employed. The big rig at the base of the nearest SailWing puts their size in context.
Cheney's own illustration of how SailWing Engines may be employed. The big rig at the base of the nearest SailWing puts their size in context.

Three decades of being the ultimate Muni kvetch led to repercussions both on and off the job. The pugnacity and single-mindedness necessary to confront a vast bureaucracy content with the status quo is not something that switches off at shift's end. The same personal attributes that have allowed Cheney to, repeatedly, undo Muni's system have also undone him outside of it. "There's a thread of sorrow woven through the fabric of Mike's makeup," says Jan Schnurr, his former wife of 24 years. "But he had to have this kind of life."

Mike Cheney wouldn't stand out on one of the buses he keeps running. He's got the build and lumbering gait of a man who has spent a career hoisting heavy objects, with bright eyes that light up behind owlish glasses. He now serves as a diesel trainer after his back gave out for good last year, curtailing his career as a heavy-duty mechanic. Cheney lives alone in a small but pristine Richmond District apartment an 18-minute bus trip from his boyhood home. But, at long last, he's a happy man. Because, this time, he's figured out how to fix everything.


Gorgeous, astoundingly detailed pencil sketches of men and machines are scattered throughout Cheney's apartment. Cheney's decision to follow his father and grandfather into the mechanical vocation was cemented only after his loss of not one but two major artistic opportunities via presidential actions: An Olympic coloring book was nixed after Jimmy Carter boycotted the Moscow Games. A stamp commemorating the work of air traffic controllers crashed and burned after Ronald Reagan fired them en masse. (Some powerful bureaucracies you can fight, and some you can't). But, glancing at the images Cheney created, his art has most certainly imitated his life.

"The best things Mike drew were always black and white. He struggles with color," says Cheney's older brother, Bob. "And I felt that was part of his personality as well. He sees things as one way or the other — there's not a lot of subtlety with him. If you're going to take on the bureaucracy, that's what gives you the strength to keep fighting. But..." Bob's voice trails off, and he takes a deep breath. "It can make him challenging."

Challenges abound. In his early days at Muni, Cheney was diagnosed with manic depression. For his family, this explained a lot: "With his predisposition to do things right, it made it even more clear for Mike what needed to be done," recalls Bob. "Even if it wasn't so clear for everyone else."

Cheney's father, David, was blunter back then, quipping, "Now we know what's wrong with him."

But that's not true. The manic depression helps to explain Cheney's endless reserves of energy and pit bull tenacity. But it doesn't account for what he did with them: his overriding need to fix everything. "Mike wants to put things in order because everything was out of order," says his younger sister, Deborah May. "There was too much we couldn't do. There was too much we couldn't fix."

Childhood effectively ended at age 7 for Cheney. His mother, Barbara, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the Cheney home soon became a de facto hospital. Gone were the idyllic San Francisco memories of romping through the park or trick-or-treating at Willie Mays' house and being handed a tiny, autographed bat. By the time Cheney was a teenager, the family was bankrupt, had lost its home, and Barbara was in a real hospital — immobile and unable to speak, she was relegated to Laguna Honda as a ward of the state. Cheney took the 10-Monterey bus to see her on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Cheney's father then divorced the mother of his five children, and married a woman he'd been seeing on the side, who had four kids of her own. They had two more children, which brought the grand total to 11. Barbara Cheney continued to wither in San Francisco's hospital of last resort. In 1972, Mike returned home from Navy boot camp to see her for the last time: "Tubes were coming in, tubes were coming out. One blink was yes, two blinks was no." Forty years later, he is still shattered by the memory: "I watched my mother completely waste away. And if you don't learn something from that, you are a fool."

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2 comments
WOODPECKER
WOODPECKER

Cheney may be a maverick , but his way of not helping those mechanic"s after him to carry the flame of hopeĀ  does continue. Instead he took a couch deal and let all others to be \harassed and not follow the contract. The supervisors' are the ones that do not follow the contract that are fellow 1414 IAM union members.

CA_Graft
CA_Graft

Cheney is quite a remarkable person. It's unfortunate SF isn't a city that values improvement nor is CA a state that cares about how it's rotting. It's not until SF becomes a Detroit and CA becomes a MI that it matters - but by then everyone that can will have left. It's currently advantageous for the tech industry to be located in SF, but someday that may change - just like the car companies no longer felt it was needed to be in Detroit. But, nothing changes until rock bottom - until then people dislike "gentrification".

 
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