JOE FITZGERALD RODRIGUEZ
Apr. 24, 2020 5:00 a.m.
Farewell, dear readers. This ink-stained wretch is hanging up his hat: This is my final On Guard column.
My last day at the San Francisco Examiner is Friday, April 24, 2020.
It’s hard to type these words. I’ve been mulling how to tell you all for weeks, now.
At first, I thought I’d try some too-clever contrivance, like bookending my columns with a call-back to my very first On Guard in 2014, when I wrote about the death of famed San Francisco Tenants Union leader Ted Gullicksen. He had helped my own grandfather navigate his buyout in the early 2000s, and just this week I drove up to my grandfather’s old flat in the Castro, above Market on 16th Street.
I wrote a letter to the current occupants, asking them for a “virtual tour” by video to help me frame my “goodbye column” with remembrances of my grandfather’s home, a place where I spent enjoying so many Thanksgivings with extended family, the heart of my life here in San Francisco. I longed, so very keenly, to walk up those stairs one last time and immortalize the experience here.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. But writing a weekly column is an endeavor that can be filled with regret.
Every email, every paper letter, or phone call from a reader that contained a tip I wish I had followed up, but couldn’t because of time, or because my plate was filled with other stories that were equally as weighty, has dogged my dreams and nipped at my heels, every day, every night, every minute, for this column’s five years.
Perhaps the most selfish regret I have concerns the late Mayor Ed Lee. One of my very first stories for the San Francisco Examiner covered a little-noticed report from the Fair Political Practices Commission, which recounted an interview with a man trying to blow the whistle on a scheme to illegally bundle donations to Lee’s mayoral campaign. Many of my early columns critiqued Lee’s policies, voraciously. I was far more full-throated in my early columns, before I learned to choose my fights a little more wisely, and that a little spice goes a long way.
I remember keenly the first time Lee let me into his actual office, perhaps a full three years after my first columns critiquing him.
“I must be crazy to talk to you,” he told me, sitting at his desk.
But he wasn’t — developing a better back-and-forth with Lee informed my writing, and resulted in more give-and-take. I still critiqued him, often, but when he got it right, I highlighted that too.
It’s a shame Mayor London Breed hasn’t reached that same equilibrium with me yet. It strikes me as hilarious that on election night, just this past March, as we both stood at state Senator Scott Wiener’s election party, she yelled at me to “get out!” and “go join” an election party for the people she believed I have more affiliation with, which she said were San Francisco progressives.
I have my own political ideas, yes, and arguing for them is part of my role as an opinion columnist. But the best advice I ever got from a fellow journalist was to develop an internal set of principles and to apply them evenly.
I exercised those principles the very next morning after Breed’s accusations, penning a scathing column about progressive strategist Jim Stearns’ bar brawl with a young campaign worker at state Senate candidate Jackie Fielder’s election night party. Stearns is a political heavyweight (metaphorically speaking, I had previously thought) responsible for (electorally) toppling many of Breed’s moderate allies.
It is an irony of ironies that one event succeeded the other. Isn’t life fascinating?
Back to my Lee regret. I always imagined when my columns were done, years after his mayorship, I could sit down for a beer with him at Glen Park Station, a bar in his neighborhood, and he might explain the thinking behind some of those decisions I skewered him for. I thought maybe, perhaps naively, that one day I would finally hear the rationales he wouldn’t air publicly.
Sadly, I never will.
I still remember my editor waking me up with a 2 a.m. call, one December morning, and me driving my goofy little blue Volkswagen New Beetle like a bat-out-of-hell to San Francisco General Hospital to confirm Lee’s death. I have never driven so fast in my life. The ashen look on now-Mayor London Breed’s face will forever be etched in my memory.
Memories like that permeated my time reporting for the Examiner. I’ll never, ever forget the horrified, howling screams of a mother whose 12-year-old son was struck and killed by a Muni train on San Jose and Lakeview avenues. She grabbed at the Muni train from its underside, trying to pull it off him, as if she could summon every ounce of love into the strength to lift tons.
It was the first time I wrote a story about a traffic death at an intersection where Muni had planned to make it safer — with lights, new signage, and more — but the implementation had been delayed. It would be far from the last.
Those memories, painful as they are, fuel the engine of reporting. They pushed me to do more for you, and more for The City, or at least as much as I could.
In that, I found some success, largely due to all of you.
It was you, readers, who alerted me to the citywide Muni slowdown of 2018. One by one, you told me of bus routes with no buses, and slowly I pieced it together — there was an operator shortage caused by a union contract with the city, which paid the operators too little, too slowly. One investigation and two years later, and The City re-traced my steps, re-constructed my work, and came to the same conclusion. Muni operators netted a raise, and hopefully, Muni service will improve after this pandemic as a result.
And it was you, readers, who pushed me to dive deeper into San Francisco City Hall. From my public records investigation that showed the Board of Supervisors’ clicking Facebook links more than 300 times during one particular hearing — during public comment, no less! — to spending weeks researching the legislative history of our mayoral candidates to aid voter research, it was you who led me on the journey.
Some of those articles brought about change, too.
One top-level manager at the Department of Emergency Management was chronically absent to his job — because he lived in Sacramento! I obtained public records of his key-card swipes at the department verifying that absenteeism. When I asked him how he would get to San Francisco were there an earthquake, he said by “helicopter.” That guy would be second-in-command during our COVID-19 response right now, probably working remotely from Sacramento, if he had not been dismissed from employment after his absences were exposed.
Far more recently, my investigations into disgraced former Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru helped trace part of his scheme with Lefty O’Doul’s restauranteur Nick Bovis to funnel funny money into a charity foundation intended for children, but instead going to lavish parties for city officials. Some of the scheme was reflected in the City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s subpoenas, my own small contribution to the ongoing corruption scandal.
Other times the outcomes from my writing were small, but no less important. And there were times when you gave me tremendous hope, another gift I can never repay you for.
Years ago, after Mayor Lee’s Superbowl-city-inspired homeless encampment sweeps, I wrote about one elderly homeless man, Neil Taylor. A gifted pianist who had memorized entire concertos, The City had thrown his walker into a trash compactor and crushed it. The City was set to award him $10,000 in apology after my column highlighted his plight — but sadly, he died days before they sought him out to pay him.
That’s when an outpouring of love and support came from readers. Talented musicians set up a memorial for Neil in an alley near Division Street, and over the beautiful sound of tinkling white ivory piano keys, Examiner readers brought food, socks, and other supplies for Neil’s homeless neighbors. People smiled, people danced, and people celebrated the humanity of a man others had long ignored.
It was perhaps one of the most touching, poignant memories I cherish in a career filled with touching, poignant memories, ones I formed highlighting people in need from the Tenderloin, to Chinatown, and all the neighborhoods that make San Francisco so culturally rich.
You all have also indulged me in making my column deeply personal.
When Alex Nieto was shot and killed by police on Bernal Heights Hill, you let me explore how Nieto, who was my high school classmate, had turned his life into something beautifully positive before he was killed. When the Presidio was set to break ground on its “Tunnel Tops” project, you even celebrated my final chomp of a Burger King chicken sandwich with my mother, remembering a forgotten fast-food joint with perhaps the best view you’ll ever see while munching french fries.
You all flew up with me into the skies when I soared in a stunt jet above San Francisco (I can’t believe I got to do that!), came along with me to Washington D.C. to watch Broke-Ass-Stuart blow raspberries at President Donald Trumpfrom the almost-front row (of a very, very tiny crowd), dined with me over a traditional Chinese New Year dinner with one kind family (a long-held dream of mine to do), and read many, many, many articles detailing my love of transit — seeing where Muni buses go to die, exploring the history of San Francisco’s streetcars, and spotting SF transit in video games.
SF Examiner reporter soars above Bay Area during Fleet Week from The San Francisco Examiner on Vimeo.
So, why am I leaving? I don’t want anyone to misunderstand — even though I’m leaving amid a tough time for most news organizations, my departure has nothing to do with the furloughs ongoing at the Examiner and SF Weekly. My departure has been in the works for months. At a certain point, I just felt the need for a new challenge.
San Francisco has enjoyed and endured many columnists, from the torch-throwing fun of the eyepatch-wearing Warren Hinckle, to the melodious meanderings of Herb Caen. Now, I would not ever compare myself to the incomparable Caen, and have always considered myself a columnist more in the Hinckle variety (who to this day is immortalized in Specs Bar, in an R. Crumb sketch, showing him being carried away by SF cops, captioned “Only in the Examiner!”).
However, I’ll still borrow some words from Caen here for my goodbye, when he departed the San Francisco Chronicle in 1950 to write for the San Francisco Examiner, which he did for eight years before hopping back.
“These, then, are some of the words without Music about San Francisco — the Queen City… For years, it has been fun to Chronicle her… it will be even more fun, I know, to Examiner again, and again.”
It has indeed been a highlight of my life to Examiner, my dear, foggy city.
A column is “a lot of little things,” Caen added, the people, big and small, the rumors, the chit-chatter, “floating, through the midnights and down back alleys like fitful fog.”
I’ve also learned it’s also about raising journalistic hell, uplifting the voices of people — of communities — who need you, to become a bullhorn for truth, as best you can. And I’m not finished yet.
Though my work may no longer grace the pages of my favorite San Franciscan gray lady, you can follow me on Twitter @FitztheReporter, www.twitter.com/FitztheReporter, to see where I’m headed next.
Thank you for everything, San Francisco.
So long, farewell: On Guard column ends
JOE FITZGERALD RODRIGUEZ