The crowd at the pimp convention in January was disappointingly thin. Only a handful of men in candy-colored suits, snakeskin boots, and fur hats milled around the Holiday Inn lobby, where they were studiously ignored by the hotel's guests. In the carport facing Van Ness Avenue, a yellow Hummer, a black BMW, and a red Lincoln convertible were lined up. A man in a Dangerous Liaisons-inspired brocade waistcoat trimmed in rhinestone buttons stood tall in the Lincoln's back seat, apparently posturing for paparazzi who never materialized. Rumor had it that many of the players who normally would have been at the hotel were in San Diego working the Super Bowl.
In the ballroom, a disorganized awards ceremony was taking place. A former pimp named James Robinson, aka Jimi Starr, had just received a trophy for “outstanding pimping.” A big slab of a man at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, with a Don Juan pencil mustache and slicked-back wavy hair, Robinson wore the bemused expression of a high-ranking diplomat being entertained at the embassy of a small country with no natural resources.
Robinson, 53, wore shades and a suit of discreet gray. In fact, the only thing that really screamed “pimp” about him was his gold-and-diamond pinkie ring, shaped like a star and as wide as a silver dollar. When his name was called, Robinson coolly accepted his award and stepped down without making a speech.
When it comes to pimping, Robinson has been there, done that. After nearly three decades in what he calls “The Game,” he transferred his skills and energy to another endeavor with some similar characteristics: politics. In December, he was elected to the upper ranks of the powerful union that represents San Francisco Muni operators — the Transport Workers Union of America, Local 250-A.
“I'm doing the same thing [as when I was pimping],” Robinson said. “Taking care of the people around me and making deals.”
Robinson is union chairman of Woods Division, the largest Muni dispatch yard in the city. It's a full-time job in which he advises and represents drivers in disciplinary hearings. He's also a vice president of Local 250-A.
But becoming Woods chairman is only the first step in Robinson's political ambitions. He intends to run for president of Local 250-A in 2009. If he wins, he'll be the guy downtown, sitting across the table from Muni's executive director during contract negotiations. That means Robinson — who claims to have snorted blow with Colombian drug lords and taught hookers how to rob johns — would be making crucial decisions that affect how thousands of San Franciscans get around every day.
But Robinson isn't your typical politician with a past. Far from being a contrite 12-step type, he's proud of his former life. Though he now lives in the Contra Costa County suburbs with his wife and four kids, he's keeping the memory of his pimp days alive through a trio of media projects. He's published a graphic memoir, is making a documentary about Fillmore Slim, his pimp mentor, and has written and produced the film's hip hop soundtrack. Like a mack version of the Jackson 5, Robinson's kids perform the songs on the album, which detail his underworld experiences.
At the pimp convention, he greeted old friends and took some ribbing about his new life. “I still like hos,” gibed a man in a yellow leather suit.
When his old cohorts were out of earshot, Robinson critiqued their pimping abilities. “If you gotta be loud and obnoxious, [advertising] 'I'm a pimp! I'm a pimp! I'm a pimp!' then you are no pimp,” he sneered of the guy in the Lincoln.
“I've been blessed by God,” Robinson added. “When I played The Game, I was the best there ever was. Now I'm a success in square life.”
Several months after his election, James Robinson took a spin through Woods Division, his new dominion in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood. Located in a concrete building that resembles a run-down high school, Woods is packed with rows of orange lockers where Muni drivers store their belongings while on the street. A handful of drivers were shooting pool at one end of the hall. Asked if he plays, Robinson said, “I don't gamble.” A driver in a brown fedora pointed his cue to an enormous sign on the wall that warns “No Gambling” and the men laughed derisively.
Although as a union official he no longer drives, Robinson was dressed in his brown Muni uniform, accessorized with a big western-style belt buckle engraved with the letter “J.” He had been up since 5 a.m., in order to get from his home in Antioch to Woods by 7 a.m.
“This is my house,” Robinson said of the Woods building. “The [chairman] is the lord of the manor.”
Robinson's main responsibility, as the top union rep at Woods, is to bargain for lighter punishment for operators in disciplinary hearings. At other times, he has the unenviable task of being the drivers' sounding board, and can barely walk down the street to get a sandwich without being inundated with complaints or questions.
“I forgot what my scheduled vacation weeks are!” said one young operator after spotting Robinson. Another was right behind him.
“A lady fell down on the floor of my bus last week, and I was already stopped,” he said. “She hopped right up, but –”
“Let me take care of this, my brother,” responded Robinson in his sonorous Barry White baritone.
Robinson retired to a cramped office he shares with Woods' union secretary, Abraham Sherman, known as Sherm. Their desks sit right next to each other, like co-pilots'. On Robinson's was an empty console where a computer should have been, but it was broken. For somebody with the title “chairman and vice president,” it didn't look like much. But Robinson fought hard for this position.
After driving a Muni bus for six years, he ran for Woods chairman in 1999, but was beaten by veteran incumbent LeJeune Carter. In 2002, Robinson was better prepared, and launched an aggressive campaign depicting himself as a reformer. He promised to pressure management for better pensions and vowed to buy a big-screen TV for Woods. [page]
Robinson made no effort to conceal his pimp history. He's long driven a red Jaguar convertible to work with the personalized license plate “JStarr.” And Muni sometimes feels to operators like one big family. In fact, in many cases it is one big family — Robinson's son, stepbrother, and stepsister all work for Muni.
“It's like Peyton Place,” Robinson joked.
During his election campaign, Robinson even staged a “Mack of the Year Party” at an Oakland club. His mentor, Fillmore Slim, was given a pimping award and the scene was filmed for use in Robinson's documentary. (He isn't exactly using a cinéma vérité approach.)
Any lingering doubt about his past vanished after an Examiner reporter caught wind of the pimp shindig. The result was an article about Robinson's unusual blend of career aspirations, titled “Hustling for Union Post,” published shortly before the election. He won anyway, by 22 votes.
“If anything, I think the notoriety and the publicity that he got actually helped him,” said Robinson's stepbrother Leon Burleson, also a Muni driver. Woods manager Larry Garnes said Robinson's past is a non-issue. “This is a country,” he said, “of second chances.”
Like many politicians', Robinson's ambition is fueled by both a desire to do good and a quest for personal status. A self-confessed control and power freak, he said he doesn't see himself as “your typical bus driver: little bald-headed guy, little baseball hat.” But in the same breath Robinson also spoke of his dream of starting a Muni outreach program to help needy children, the homeless, and senior citizens.
Garnes thinks Robinson's proposal is a good idea. Unfortunately, it comes at a time when Muni's budget — like that of other city agencies — is being cut. The funding will have to come from private grants — or the program will have to wait.
In the meantime, Robinson must attend to less creative tasks, like handling union grievances and disciplinary proceedings.
“This job is more stressful and difficult than I thought,” he said, after his constituents had left. “Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it!”
“Mr. Robinson didn't know the pressure of this office,” Sherm said gleefully. “He do now!”
Robinson admitted that he seriously doubts if he would run for Woods chairman again, knowing what he knows now. But, he added: “This is a steppingstone to get downtown.”
In any event, Robinson's co-workers now know even more about him. His book, The Gospel of the Game: Pimp Tales, Book One, is for sale on Amazon.com, along with the CD soundtrack to the documentary. Robinson bragged that he's already sold 300 copies of the book, many to Muni employees.
James Elliot Robinson knew from an early age that he wanted to mack.
He and his family — mother, father, and older brother Ken — moved to San Francisco from Houston when Robinson was a baby. Robinson described his dad as a “penny ante hustler” and alcoholic who was often in jail. Robinson's mother eventually divorced him and married a longshoreman with whom she settled in the Haight.
Robinson's stepfather had four kids from a previous marriage, and together they had what Robinson calls an African-American version of a stable, middle-class, Leave It to Beaver existence.
In the mid-'60s, however, the adolescent Robinson and his younger stepbrother, Leon Burleson, discovered the nearby Fillmore District, which by then was near the end of its heyday as a cultural and political hot spot for black San Franciscans. The neighborhood's historic jazz clubs had long hosted performances by Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and other musical greats. Though many of the old clubs soon would be torn down, the Fillmore still jumped with musicians, preachers, political activists, and, best of all, pretty girls with big teased hair.
But most intriguing to the brothers were the pimps, whose hairdo of choice was a perma-waved bouffant known as the Process. The neighborhood players trolled the streets in shiny Cadillacs, lovely ladies in every seat. They flashed wads of cash in pool halls and traded tall tales in barbershops.
“I seen guys with slick hair, big cars, and pretty girls,” recalled Burleson, “and said, “This is what I want to do.'”
“Black people don't have a hell of a lot of heroes,” said Robinson. “There weren't even a lot of black ballplayers back then. Who am I gonna look up to — some skinny white guy with freckles? … I wanted to be a pimp!”
In junior high school, the brothers spent virtually all their free time in the Fillmore, trying to get closer to their idols. Burleson landed a job selling the black weekly paper the Sun Reporter, and Robinson shined shoes at barbershops.
One Christmas, someone asked the kids in their family what they wanted to be when they grew up. Burleson, then 11, piped up, “I want to be a pimp with a Process and a blue Cadillac by the time I'm 15!”
There was shocked silence. Then their father asked, “Why 15?”
Burleson wasn't too far off. By the time he and Robinson entered the now-defunct Polytechnic High School, across from Kezar Stadium, they were dressing like pimps, hanging out in bars with pimps, and prowling continually for women who would turn tricks for them. Occasionally they were successful.
The summer he was 15, Burleson convinced a 14-year-old girl he knew who had run away from home to stay with him. “My sisters were at camp,” said Burleson. “I'd hide her in the closet in the day, and she'd go out and work at night.” [page]
By the time he was a junior at Poly, Robinson had finagled his way into being the errand boy/apprentice of Fillmore Slim, a long, tall pimp who was one of the most outrageous figures in the Fillmore. Slim nicknamed his young understudy the “Schoolboy Pimp” because of his nerdy determination to study and master The Game.
“I could walk into a room and be Fillmore Slim,” said Robinson. “I watched the way he walked, the way he talked. … I could tell you what he was thinking, and what he was gonna do.”
Over time Robinson's nickname morphed into “Star Pupil” and then “Jimi Starr.” (Robinson spelled it with an extra R “to be different.”) Burleson chose “Reno Fouché” as his nom de mack.
What the boys couldn't learn on the streets, they picked up in school.
“I smoked good weed and got a lot of pussy,” remembered Robinson. Burleson estimated that Poly produced 75 percent of the people from his generation who went into The Game in San Francisco. “You had 16-year-old kids driving Cadillacs to school,” he said.
In 1968, Robinson dropped out of high school. That same year, 20 Poly teachers signed a letter to the San Francisco Board of Education complaining that the school was a shambles. The student body, the teachers wrote, was running amok; drug abuse, absenteeism, violence, pimping, and prostitution were endemic. They suggested the school be shut down. The girls' gym teacher was quoted in the Chronicle as saying, “This is a terribly sad place. It is terribly sad for kids to have to grow up and be prostitutes or pimps or take drugs at the age of 14 or 15.” Another instructor told the Chron, “Some of these girls who are prostitutes do their thing because they simply want enough money to buy lunch.”
Students responded by marching on City Hall with signs that read “Do I Look Like a Pimp? No!” and “I'm Not a Lunch Money Ho!” Neither Burleson nor Robinson participated.
Robinson finished school in the Army, assigned to a noncombat relief unit on Okinawa during the Vietnam War. When he returned to San Francisco, he took a few sociology classes at a community college, where he met his wife, Rosalind. He quit his studies, however, to resume his adolescent quest to become a famous pimp.
Burleson also dropped out of college, where he'd been majoring in chemistry in order to “learn how to make my own drugs.” Three of the brothers' cousins had also become pimps.
As Jimi Starr, Robinson lived a nomadic lifestyle. He traveled and lived with a stable of several prostitutes in the Bay Area, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Canada, and points between. While his women worked, he'd amuse himself by snorting cocaine and downing cocktails with fellow pimps, drug dealers, and other criminal types. He also attended prizefights and art exhibits, and went shopping.
Robinson often traveled with Burleson and his stable, though the brothers sometimes present different versions of their time together. One of Burleson's favorite memories, for instance, is from the mid-1970s. He and Robinson were doing well in Hollywood, staying at the Hyatt Regency, and had recently bought new Cadillacs. According to Burleson, Robinson suggested they rent a limo and go to a costume shop and get hooded cloaks. They then drove down L.A.'s main “ho stroll” — Hollywood Boulevard. When they spotted a hooker, the hooded brothers threw open the limo doors and yelled, “Quick — get in! We're with Earth, Wind & Fire!”
Back at the Hyatt, said Burleson, Robinson pulled off his hood and declared, “Ladies, it's Starr time. And I'm Jimi Starr.”
Robinson said that never happened.
“I never needed a hood on my head to get anything done,” he snapped.
Burleson stood by his story.
Robinson did pride himself on being able to make a whore out of any woman, by tapping into her natural desire to do perverse things.
“Deep down inside every woman, there's a part that wonders what it would be like,” he said. “And I've never met a woman who only does it once. It's like those Lay's potato chips — 'Betcha can't eat just one!'”
He bragged that he could get women to do whatever he wanted — not just sell sex. “I wouldn't say it was brainwashing,” he said. “I became a master manipulator.”
A former member of his stable, Jackie Anderson, said Robinson “has a gift for language, and you get kinda caught up.” Anderson, now 39 and a Santa Rosa hairdresser, said Robinson befriended her when she was a teenager in San Francisco. “He would take me to the movies, and we'd talk about life,” she said. She later became his baby sitter, living with his family and stable in Las Vegas. Before long, however, Robinson turned her out.
“He takes those weaknesses — the need to be loved and cared for — and I don't want to say exploits them ….” Anderson refused to finish her thought, stating that she didn't want to jeopardize her long friendship with Robinson. (Their families still get together for barbecues and birthday parties.)
“We lived a simple lifestyle,” Anderson said of her years working for Robinson. “There were chores, we came home and had our naps, went to the cleaners, went shopping. I wore jeans during the day. I remember there was one young woman who got off into drugs, and there was a big argument. That was the code of ethics: no needles, no getting drunk. Stay focused.”
After a scary experience with a john, Robinson allowed her to stop working.
“He's basically a decent person,” she said. “I knew there was going to be a transformation [in him] before it happened.”
Robinson admitted that he “may have led people into a lifestyle that was unsavory. And in doing so, I may have altered the course of their life. I don't feel good about it, but I'm not sad about it. The door was always open. I never made anybody stay with me against their will.” [page]
In 1977, Robinson was convicted on a misdemeanor weapons charge (concealing a gun under the seat of his Cadillac in Berkeley) and paid a $40 fine. Otherwise, he evaded the law and never served time in prison.
Although he claims to have enjoyed all the perks of the job — Cadillacs, women, tailor-made outfits, jewelry, champagne, and cocaine, Robinson said he was never fully satisfied. He remembered driving along the Grapevine on Interstate 5 in the early '70s, with two hookers and $25,000 in his car.
“I said to myself, 'This is really fucking boring,'” he recalled. “'There's gotta be something else.'”
When he pulled into Bakersfield, Robinson saw “little people on their way to work, going into the little coffeehouses, smoke coming out of the smokestacks.”
“I thought, 'Even though I'm gettin' all this shit, I would give it all up just to have a normal life.' I started thinking of ways to escape it,” he said. But over a decade passed, and Robinson couldn't stop pimping.
“It's an addiction,” he said. “You're gettin' sometimes $2,000 a day. You get so you come to expect it.”
Tragedy opened an escape hatch. In 1989, Robinson's brother Ken was in an automobile accident that left him a quadriplegic. Several weeks later, their birth father died from cirrhosis of the liver.
“I never particularly cared for that guy,” said Robinson. “But when he died, I cried. That's when I realized I loved him.”
Robinson plunged into despair and dissolution. For months he regularly binged on cocaine, sometimes failing to return to the Richmond home he shared with his wife and kids.
“He wasn't even dressin' or nothin',” recalled Rosalind in her raspy voice. She finally put her foot down, telling him to either get into detox or get himself “a good shot of Jesus.” Robinson chose the latter, and accompanied Roz to church. He was baptized and momentarily transformed.
“When I came outta the water, I was speaking in tongues,” he said. He knew it was time for a career change.
But Robinson, then 41, was in a bind. He had established a middle-class lifestyle for his family based on money earned from pimping. He had a $168,000 mortgage on the Richmond house, and needed a job that paid a decent salary. But he had no college degree and no legal work experience to list on his résumé, other than a short stint as a security guard.
“I don't like to be dirty, so I'm not going to work under the hood of a car,” he said. “I'm not going to work at McDonald's neither.”
Given his recent epiphany, he first tried the church. After a year at a local Bible college, he earned a certificate in evangelism. But the process left him disillusioned. He saw greed in collection baskets. And after careful reading of the Scripture, he came to view Jesus as just an ordinary guy.
“In Matthew 11:18, it reads, 'The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber,'” he read from his well-worn Bible. “Winebibber! The man liked to have his cocktail!”
Next, he tried to become a cop, attending San Mateo College's police training course. But after graduating in 1992, Robinson said, he “just wasn't feelin' it” and didn't apply for a police officer's job.
Finally, like Goldilocks finding the bed that was neither too soft nor too hard on the third try, Robinson found a way to go straight that felt just right. In 1993, he was hired as a Muni bus driver.
Beginning drivers earned less than $14 an hour. But at the time, they could almost double their salaries with overtime shifts.
“In the black community in San Francisco, [working for Muni] is like going to the Super Bowl,” said Robinson. He encouraged his stepbrother to apply, too. Burleson had not been as lucky as Robinson, having served time in state prison on robbery and narcotics charges. But he, too, went straight, was hired on at Muni, and bought a house in Atherton.
However, Robinson didn't stop pimping when he started working for Muni. In June 1994, he and Rosalind launched a telephone prostitution service called All Starrs Escourt Service. Robinson is cagey when discussing All Starrs. Asked how long he ran it, he said “days,” then changed his mind and said “months.” Another time he said “it was hard to say” how long he'd operated the business, but that he “made a shitload of cash” before giving it to one of his former hookers to run.
“[All Starrs] was a transitional business,” said Burleson. “He was doing legal things, but, you know — the lust. It ain't easy to just get up and walk away.”
Robinson's political awakening was also caused by a near-death experience — his own. In April 1995, he was driving through the Bayview District when a gunman fired a shot through the windshield of his bus. Robinson wasn't hit, but he hurt his back and neck falling down. He took six months off and returned to work fearing for his life.
Three years later, a woman bus driver was shot at in the Bayview on Robinson's line and he decided to do something about it. He drafted a petition, demanding that three bus lines near the Bayview housing projects be rerouted after dark. He collected nearly 200 drivers' signatures and submitted them to Mayor Willie Brown. He also scheduled a meeting with the mayor during one of Brown's Open Door Days. Rosalind accompanied him.
The mayor, Robinson remembered, “came in with his tailor-made suit on, suede shoes. For a bus driver to be sittin' there — me and Roz — with the mayor, his secretary, and bodyguard — it don't get no better than that.” [page]
Though Robinson's suggestion was not implemented (the mayor told drivers that the crime-ridden area still had to be served by public transit), his face-to-face with Brown left him energized and inspired. He wrote a flurry of new proposals to improve Muni, which he sent to the mayor as well as to the executive board of Local 250-A.
First, he outlined his idea for a Muni police force to keep riders and drivers safe — something BART had had for years. Next, he suggested that elevator music be played in buses to calm riders and keep them from attacking drivers or each other. “Music soothes the ear of the savage beast,” he wrote in his proposal. He pitched each new idea to Brown on an Open Door Day.
By 1998, public wrath against Muni had hit an all-time high. Riders were enraged by the transit system's chronic tardiness. In August of that year, glitches in a new automated control system produced the infamous weeklong “Muni Metro meltdown,” with trains delayed for hours during the morning commute. Frustrated passengers yanked emergency exit levers in stalled trains, escaping on foot through the tunnels. City officials, notably Willie Brown, were under intense pressure to fix Muni.
Muni drivers bore the brunt of the public's rage. Newspaper articles revealed their high absenteeism and eyebrow-raising perks. Drivers were entitled to 10 “miss-outs” a year — unscheduled paid days off they could take without calling in. The media also highlighted overtime abuse. Even if an operator had taken paid time off during his scheduled workweek, reducing his total hours worked below 40, he could pick up extra shifts and be paid OT.
Other factors contributed to Muni's woes, including outdated equipment and a hiring rate that wasn't keeping up with attrition. And not all drivers abused the system. High absenteeism, for instance, could be partly explained by job stress. According to studies by UC Berkeley and UCSF, San Francisco transit drivers have some of the highest rates of hypertension, ulcers, and neck and back pain in the country.
Robinson saw the solution: good PR. The only way to change Muni's image, he felt, was through humanitarian activity. He again drafted a proposal, which read in part:
“Gentle people, can you visualize in your mind, Municipal Railways Transit Operators in and from all seven division [sic] giving away 10,000 turkeys and hams with corresponding bags of groceries with all the fixings. Can you see the 30,000 people coming to get the 10,000 bags of groceries? Now, can you see the media? Do you see the big picture? … Now, for those of you [who] truly see the big picture, can you multiply it by three?”
This time when Robinson met with Brown, the mayor recommended him for a seat on the executive board of the Bayview Hope Homeless Resource Center, a small mobile food bank run by a local Samaritan named Barbara “Mother” Brown. It was the first time Robinson had been an executive of anything — at least anything legal. He helped recruit Muni drivers to give away food baskets at the center's first Christmas party.
“He's a bright young man,” said Mother Brown. “He's definitely a humanitarian at heart.”
Robinson's stream of ideas and confabs with the mayor began to attract attention. Within Muni, he developed a reputation as a rabble-rouser, and was sought out by a husband-and-wife pair of radicals active in the union — drivers John and Ellen Murray.
The Murrays are outspoken communists. A middle-aged white man with a brush-cut and an earring in each ear, John Murray is popular among the rank and file for his firebrand style of attacking management and defending workers no matter what the circumstances. Murray (who refused to comment for this story) took Robinson under his wing and crash-educated him in far-left politics. He gave him copies of Challenge, the Progressive Labor Party's newspaper, and became — in Robinson's words — his “Marxist mentor.”
“John Murray is a hero in Local 250,” Robinson enthused. “He's like the last word in unionism.” He was also, Robinson noted, only the “second Caucasian guy I could ever just sit down with and converse.” (The first was a white pimp.)
The radical labor organizer told Robinson that even his macking was a form of communism. As a pimp, Robinson took all the prostitutes' money and doled out exactly what they needed for living expenses. Likewise under communism, Murray told him, “the people have three pairs of socks, a pair of boots, a jacket — everything that they need, dictated from the top.”
The analogy made sense to Robinson, with one big exception.
Communists, he said with a smile, “believe that the money should be handled by a group at the top, and everything goes back to the people. The difference [in pimping] being, everything goes back to me!”
Murray's influence on his protégé is obvious in a short but prescient article Robinson wrote (under the nom de plume “Forever Redd”) about Iraq for Challenge in 2000.
The notorious Rockefeller-wing capitalists' ongoing manipulations of the cost of oil and their control over the fascist governments will ultimately culminate in bombs over Baghdad. … Comrades, if you listen closely, you can hear the return of the thunderous winds of war ….
With Muni under heavy political fire, the late '90s were a perfect time to become a revolutionary bus driver. In 1999, Mayor Brown appointed a new Muni executive director named Michael Burns, who hailed from Philadelphia and had a reputation for being tough on labor. Two local public interest groups — San Francisco Planning and Urban Research and Rescue Muni — were conducting an aggressive signature campaign to pressure city officials to reform Muni. [page]
Local 250-A meetings, which Robinson began attending with the Murrays, became a nexus for enraged drivers who felt they were getting a bad shake. Many feared they were in danger of losing perks and benefits. Some, including Robinson, believed Muni was being unfairly targeted because of its high percentage of black operators. (The Muni work force is 83 percent minority, and about half of the minorities are African-Americans.)
In November 1999, the drivers' fears became a reality. Voters passed Proposition E — the Muni Reform Charter Amendment — which banned miss-outs and set tough, on-time performance standards enforced through a system of merit pay. It also reduced the influence of the mayor (who had a close relationship with the transit union) and other city officials by creating a new agency to run Muni.
Needless to say, Proposition E didn't please most drivers, including Robinson.
“The drivers don't run Muni, City Hall does!” he fumed. “Politicians who are lobbied by big business run Muni, and they run the City and County of San Francisco. A driver is simply employed by the city, and the drivers are really just wage slaves.”
Not long after Robinson lost his first bid for Woods chairman, Muni chief Michael Burns began pushing hard on Local 250-A's leaders to implement Proposition E. The union and the city later arrived at a proposed contract that dramatically changed operators' lives. It ended miss-outs, offered performance-based bonuses, reduced sick leave and holiday pay, and abolished overtime for operators who hadn't already put in 40 hours. Additionally, it tightened disciplinary procedures.
Despite the urging of union leaders, Local 250-A members overwhelmingly rejected the pact. Then, in an unprecedented move, they rejected a sweetened version of the contract. Mayor Brown stepped in to resolve the crisis, and the contract was finally approved that fall.
But resentment ran deep among operators, who felt their union had rolled over.
“Every time they were at the negotiating table, they came back with less,” said Leon Burleson. “They went into a room with Brown and Michael Burns, and they flip-flopped.”
Things got no better with time. New, more bureaucratic disciplinary procedures and greater pressure to stay on schedule made many operators' jobs more stressful.
“The place has turned from a family atmosphere to a corporate structure,” said Ron Austin, union chairman of Muni's cable car division. “That might seem like a good thing, because the public sees a vast improvement. We see it from the inside.” Added Robinson: “Morale is probably as low as I've ever seen it. [Prop. E] might've worked for the people of the city, but for drivers, it's a nightmare.”
In their 2002 elections, the Local 250-A rank and filers made it clear that they wanted new blood. Every incumbent on the local's executive council was defeated except the president, who retired. Half of the incumbents in lesser positions were also unseated by newcomers. James Robinson — a radical with a renegade background, friend of the anti-establishment Murrays — was part of this new guard.
Today, Robinson looks forward to the time when Local 250-A's current president, Bill Sisk, decides to step down.
“When his regime is over,” Robinson said, “it's Starr time.”
James and Rosalind Robinson and their four children live in Antioch, a bedroom community in eastern Contra Costa County. Their two-story mint-green tract home is guarded by a pair of plaster lions, and a wind chime painted with bumblebees tinkles out in front.
When they moved to Antioch from Richmond two years ago, they threw a housewarming party. For kicks, Roz hired a male stripper named Chocolate Thunder, who laid plastic wrap on the ladies' privates, sprayed whipped cream on them, and licked it off.
On a Saturday afternoon in March, Robinson answered the door in a baby-blue velour Sean John track suit. His sleepy eyelids looked even droopier than normal. Besides the pressure and long hours of his new union gig (he doesn't get home until 9 at night), things were reaching a critical stage with his various pimp media projects.
The documentary was in post-production. “We're just editing in some stock footage of hookers,” he said. And that day, the family was recording profanity-free versions of the soundtrack for radio play. Robinson's memoir, The Gospel of the Game, was being edited by a mom-and-pop publishing outfit in San Jose.
Robinson padded in his socks through the formal living room, past the gilt-and-polyester-brocade furniture he insisted is from “the 1870s.” He plopped down on a royal-blue couch in the family room, next to a reproduction Tiffany lamp. On the walls were signed prints by his favorite artist, Salvador Dali.
“Gospel of the Game is going to be a best seller,” he said. “It's going to be bigger than the Bible.”
Robinson began writing his book while on disability after being shot at in 1995. His physician thought he should see a psychologist to get the experience off his chest and referred him to Dr. Nathan Hare, a former '60s Black Power advocate and sociology professor. Besides his private psychotherapy practice, Hare and his wife run the Black Think Tank, which promotes black self-help and education. (They do public speaking gigs and publish short books such as Bringing the Black Boy to Manhood: The Passage.)
Hare, who is the spitting image of the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, with a goatee and distinguished shock of salt-and-pepper hair, has many Muni drivers as clients. And, as luck would have it, he has published articles about pimp psychology in Ebony and the now-defunct Black World magazine.
Hare believes underprivileged black men become pimps to make up for a lack of “social potency,” turning the tables on women who would otherwise reject them for their poor earning power. And Hare sees Muni as the perfect job for an ex-pimp to “work off some of the guilt.” [page]
“You're the man of the hour on the bus,” he said. “You've got a uniform, which appeals to women.” Perhaps less plausibly, he described the bus as “a big penis symbol, which you're controlling.”
When Robinson showed Hare some of his writing, the shrink encouraged him to keep at it.
“If they can have some outlet that can give them a taste of the bright lights, big city, like writing,” said Hare of guys like Robinson, “they can really ride the bus and dream of even more.”
The result was The Gospel of the Game: Pimp Tales, Book One, a rambling document that alternates between self-aggrandizing soliloquies and disconnected but graphic scenes of his life as a mack daddy.
Robinson's effort to cash in with a literary tell-all isn't unique. In 1969, former Chicago pimp Robert Beck, aka Iceberg Slim, wrote Pimp: The Story of My Life. A cult classic that's sold more than 5 million copies, Pimp describes Beck's education and career in unflinching detail and humorous, colorful vernacular. There's even a hustler's glossary that explains some of Beck's more obscure terminology, like “Jasper” (lesbian).
Beck served as a role model for other pimps hoping to parlay their experiences into straight-world notoriety without losing their coolness factor. A search of Amazon.com reveals a few other ex-mack reminiscences, including Rosebudd the American Pimp, penned by Robinson's moody friend and filmmaking partner, John Dickson of Vallejo.
But not every pimp can create a hit. Rosebudd's book failed to vault him from Coke-machine repairman to literary star. Beck's publisher, Holloway House, has gotten about 30 unsolicited manuscripts from pimps since Beck's book came out, according to its president, Bentley Morriss. But he sniffed that they are mostly “very bad rip-offs of Robert Beck.”
Similarly, pimps have been inspired to put their lives on film by the success of two recent documentaries. In 1999, Pimps Up, Hos Down and American Pimp aired on HBO and in art-house theaters around the country. The latter featured extensive interviews with Rosebudd and Fillmore Slim. Both films showed pimps in a sympathetic, humorous, even groovy light.
Robinson and Rosebudd later cooked up a plan for their own flick. With Rosebudd's experience in such matters, gleaned from being interviewed for American Pimp, and Robinson's relationship with his former mentor, they'd make a documentary about Fillmore Slim. They are relying heavily on the services of a video production house, since neither of them has ever actually directed, filmed, or edited a movie.
Robinson plans to enter the documentary, also titled The Gospel of the Game, in film festivals when it's finished.
As his dad talked to a reporter on that Saturday afternoon, Robinson's oldest son, James Junior, shyly emerged from his bathroom and ducked out of the house. The muscle-bound J.J. is a Muni bus driver, has never been in jail, and competes as a weight lifter, according to his proud dad. At 24, he's the oldest of Robinson's kids. The others are 17-year-old Evangelina, Marc Anthony, 15, and Napoleon, 13.
As his real son left, Robinson's “adopted” son, Rich Mack, arrived. Mack, 22, met Robinson through a mutual friend at a San Francisco club and immediately became the older man's groupie and main rapper on the CD version of The Gospel of the Game, along with Evangelina and Marc Anthony. Mack is handsome and doe-eyed, with long eyelashes and a mouth plate that fits over his upper teeth, framing each one in gold.
“Me and Jimi has a connection,” he said. “I came up without a father. I look up to all these cats. Him and Fillmore [Slim] — he had a lot of success, and got a lot of respect.”
Robinson and Mack sipped cognac from cut-crystal glasses and smoked mentholated cigarettes on the patio, as sunlight glinted off the kidney-shaped pool. “I've put myself into him,” said Robinson. “He feels what I'm sayin' … I use Rich to project the image of hip hop.”
Soon, nearly all the CD performers had assembled. Robinson's nieces, Ramona and Lamica Tevis, are sunny, confident young backup singers in tight jeans and meticulously styled hair.
“When I first found out [Robinson] was a pimp, my first reaction was embarrassment and shock,” said Lamica, 21. “But seeing how my family reacted, I became OK with it. My dad was like, “You didn't know he was a pimp?!'”
Roz arrived with Evangelina, a pretty high school senior and aspiring model with a Burberry print scarf tied around her long hair. She's got a big-screen TV in her room, and Robinson lamented that he “spoils” her.
His kids, Robinson said, are all ears when he talks about his life as a pimp.
Now, they're rapping his memories for him. “They don't know none of this shit,” said Robinson. “They've never experienced anything like that. This is my life.”
Merry and gracious, Roz — a dead ringer for Gladys Knight — responds to Robinson's every need with the attentiveness of a '50s housewife. As soon as she put down her keys and purse, she refilled drinks and busily emptied bottles of salsa into glass bowls, assembled plates of corn chips, and sliced a summer sausage for her guests.
Since tearing a rotator cuff last year, Roz has been on leave from her job at the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic. She wakes every day at 4 a.m. to lay out Robinson's uniform and make him breakfast. She helps him with his media projects on weekends. At first glance, they seem to have a master/servant relationship, especially when he barks at her, “BABE! A coupla business cards, PLEASE!” and she jogs upstairs to get them. But upon closer observation, they appear to work as a team.
Asked what she thinks of her husband's memoir, Roz responded chirpily, “It's what you call dy-no-mite!” Then husband and wife joked about his inability to find his way around the kitchen. [page]
“I'm like the breadwinner,” explained Robinson. “The kids will tell you I ain't got a clue. The only thing I know is where the beer, cognac, bed, and bathroom are. And the Jag and the Jeep.”
Then Evangelina, Ramona, and Lamica were ready to head out to a nearby recording studio to do their voice touch-ups. Mack and Robinson decided to stay behind. Polishing off a malt liquor, Robinson asked Roz to drive the girls. A flicker of annoyance passed over her soft features, but only for a moment.
“No problem,” she said breathily, and picked up the keys to the Jeep.
Robinson has sunk his family's savings into the media projects, gambling heavily on the success of the Gospel of the Game movie, book, and CD.
“Soon we'll be countin' our millions,” Roz said cheerily. But both of them know the projects are far from sure things. All could flop miserably.
“If it does not fly, I'll simply pick myself up and dust myself off,” said Robinson. “I told a portion of my life. I left a legacy.”
On the November evening after the Examiner published its story about his mack-daddy past, Robinson drove home from Woods in a funk. The article had quoted a vice squad inspector about the evils of pimping, and Robinson felt betrayed by the reporter. The vice guy didn't even know him! Robinson feared the story would turn off union voters and he would lose the election for the second time.
As a black man with a questionable history, Robinson recalled thinking, “Some people want to kick you or push you down or keep you down, when you're trying to go up.” He began writing poetry in his head as he crossed the Bay Bridge.
I was condemned before birth. Robbed of self-worth.
The words kept flowing and before he knew it, he had the lyrics to a rap. Titled “Heaven for Ps and Gs,” now his favorite track on his CD, the song asks whether society ever will allow pimps and gangsters — Ps and Gs — to redeem themselves. Is there salvation, the song asks, for Ps and Gs?
A few months later, his victorious union campaign behind him, Robinson was sworn into his new post at Local 250-A's offices in the Fillmore — the same neighborhood where he'd once clamored for the attention of local pimps.
After the ceremony, Robinson celebrated in Rasselas jazz bar downstairs with a few friends and relatives. He, Rosebudd, and Burleson sat in one booth. Roz and Jackie Anderson sat in another. As the men talked, the statuesque Anderson rose and approached their table. She held something shiny in her hand, which she slid onto Robinson's finger.
Without a word, Anderson returned to her table.
Robinson looked at his hand, took a sip of Rémy Martin, and smiled. It was his star-shaped gold-and-diamond pinkie ring — a glittering reminder of the career he'd mastered and then abandoned.
Jimi Starr knows there are rewards for doing the wrong things in life. James Robinson is about to find out if there are also rewards for doing the right things.