Diminished Expectations

Jerry Brown decamps his Pacific Heights firehouse for the East Bay

It's a lot of empty space,” remarked the real estate agent as she showed my wife and me the Pacific Heights property at 3022 Washington. A converted firehouse dating from 1893, the place boasted a main room that measured at least 50 feet by 30 feet and featured a soaring ceiling and hardwood floors.

“The owner,” announced the agent, a golf-course refugee whose cream-colored Rolls Royce — replete with dopey vanity plates — was parked outside, “is Jerry Brown.”

That explained the empty space.
We took in the details: the brass fire pole (did Jerry slide down or was it merely a prop in his self-actualization exercises?); the cozy mezzanine office with its balcony cantilevered over the fire-engine area below; a disconcertingly large stash of “We the People” buttons from Campaign '92. Were the well-heeled prospective buyers assembled here familiar with Jerry's grassroots effort? Were they even familiar with the People? Politics has a karmic way of coming back to get you: The fat cats Jerry spurned with his campaign-donation limits of $100 were the very folks he now hoped to unload his overpriced firehouse on. The place's recent drop in asking price — from $1,400,000 to $1,195,000 — may have reflected an upper-class boycott in retaliation for Jerry's populist pranks.

The firehouse's aura drew me to its separate and quaintly named cook house and past the open-air breakfast terrace. Had Linda Ronstadt drunk her fresh-squeezed here while Jerry sipped his yak-butter tea? In the living room I came upon “buyers” thumbing through artfully arranged back issues of Architectural Digest featuring the Brown firehouse. The realtor noted the room's magnificent handcrafted bookcases, but seemed reluctant to discuss their contents. Perhaps battles with her headstrong teenagers had dampened her enthusiasm for Hesse and Casteneda.

I found my wife in Jerry's bedroom, gazing at an elegant cherry bed frame flanked by exotic Asian sculpture and simple floor matting. Here Jerry must have cavorted with gorgeous yoga freaks, with long-legged co-eds concerned with politics, with acrobatic, macrobiotic beauties. Jerry was one Yale law grad who had no time for Gennifer Flowers.

And then I saw it: the closet, a miniature replica of the firehouse itself, the kind of item Neiman-Marcus made two of each year and still couldn't sell. With its mirrored windows and carved eaves, that closet/house cost more than any home I would ever own. Zen and Birds of Appetite demanded that I open the doors. There they hung like sleek manta rays: the famous Armani suits. (I assumed that the telltale Pendleton work shirts were already in Jerry's new home in Oakland.) This man, with his firehouses big and small, his graying temples and Eastern religion, this man was my better. This man was everyone's better. I pressed the sleeve of one of his slate-blue suits to my lips and returned to my wife's side. “Come on, hon,” I coaxed. “It's getting dark.”

“Later,” she murmured absently. “I'll join you later.”
On moving day, I ambled by the “Sale Pending” sign and wondered if Jerry suffered any of the wistful regrets most feel at such departures. I hoped to glimpse him working on his karma: offering beers to the moving men or lending a hand to keep down costs. The firehouse doors were open: I spotted three men, but there may have been more back in the cook house. It was warming up and beads of sweat formed on the movers' faces. It was midday and those people already looked tired — oui, the people.

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