Transformations

Dan Brown

Tue, 04/07/2020 - 2:15pm

I worked in the Nixon for President Northern California headquarters the summer of 1960, between my seventh and eighth grades.  The office was on the second floor of a four-story building, which must have been at least 60 years old and was located on the corner of Market and Turk streets, in the heart of what was then, and still is, called the Tenderloin district.  The Tenderloin was home to old buildings that house seedy store fronts, flea bag hotels, and cheap office space.

To get to the campaign headquarters, I would take the 3 Jackson bus, which stopped a half block from my parents’ house on Lyon Street in the well-to-do Pacific Heights, though I never gave that much of a thought when I was growing up. (Sure, I knew it was a nicer neighborhood than the Fillmore Bayview districts, which were predominantly black (or, Negro, as they would say in 1960), or the Mission district, which was predominantly Hispanic, mostly Mexican.) 

I would ride the ‘3’ as it glided along its overhead electric wires down Jackson Street, past Alta Plaza park, to Fillmore Street, where it turned right, south down Fillmore Street. 

The first four blocks of Fillmore Street were made up of small mom-and-pop retail stores: pharmacies, flower shops, a diner, a book store, a toy store, the Clay Theater, which almost exclusively showed foreign films, followed by a ‘transition’ to the start of the Fillmore district. 

Another four blocks, and the ‘3’ would turn left on Sutter Street, which ran east-west, starting from the corner of Sutter and Market, where the Crocker Bank had a large granite edifice with Greek columns, all the way to the intersection of California Street and Presidio Avenue, where the Jewish Community Center was housed on the northwest corner.

I would get off the 3 Jackson at Powell Street and transfer to the Powell Street cable car, which took me the last five blocks from Sutter Street down to Market Street, where the cable care line ended at the confluence of Market, Turk and Powell Streets. 

Here, the cable cars were turned around on a large revolving disc, so that the grip man, who stood at the rear of the car would be facing forward, up towards the little hills that the cable cars climbed ever day.  The grip man controlled the cable car’s speed by pulling on a large handle that was attached at its bottom to the cable underneath the ground and extended up through the center of the cable car, between two outward facing benches upon which the riders sat.

The grip men were cool dudes, and they knew it. They sang, they told stories, they joked with the riders, and they kept a sharp eye out for free-riders who would hop on the boards on the side of cable cars that passengers stood on while holding on to poles anchored to the cable car.

I can’t remember exactly how I spent my days working at the campaign headquarters, mostly doing whatever was required, running errands, stuffing envelopes, and handing out campaign materials to walk-ins.  The only person I remember was Dan Brown, a large black man who had a calm, but very commanding presence.  I hung on his every word, and gladly performed any task he asked me, so grateful that he always treated me as capable and responsible. 

Most days I would bring a brown bag lunch, and eat it in the office with the other campaign workers.  After finishing my lunch I would usually take a walk down Market Street, which at lunch time was teeming with tourists, shoppers, businessmen and office workers, and a goodly amount of Tenderloin habitués, easily identified by their dirty, worn clothes, and the brown bags containing their precious bottles of Thunderbird or White Port.

I don’t recall ever feeling threatened by anyone, though I was always alert for pick-pockets and pan handlers. I would wander down Market Street towards Powell Street where the cable cars ended and started their routes from downtown to Fishermen’s Wharf. 

There, a F.W. Woolworth Five-and-Dime store occupied the northeast corner, with large windows filled with merchandise of everything imaginable beckoning everyone to enter.  Some days I would go in a buy a cherry Coke or a comic book, but most days I would just hang out and watch all the people mingle.  Somewhere between Woolworth’s and the campaign headquarters two men were always demonstrating the wonders of the Veg-O-Matic appliance.  I would stop on my way back to the headquarters and watch the men deftly manipulate the various accessories, carving and slicing everything from tomatoes and pineapples to meats and cheeses.  I was almost seduced by the amazing things the salesmen could do in their live demonstrations, but in the end, always felt it was a con, a sophisticated game of 3-card Monty, with the slick and clever pitchmen trying to separate the onlookers from their money.

At the end of the day, I would walk back to Powell Street to catch the cable car for the five-blocks up to Sutter Street, where I would transfer to the 3 Jackson for the ride home.  Some days, when I was able to leave early and the fog stayed outside the Golden Gate Bridge, I would grab my baseball glove and a ball as soon as I got home, and run down to the local playground, in hopes of joining a late pick-up game with my friends and other kids from the neighborhood. 

Transformations
We tell stories. 
We tell stories to make sense of our lives.
We tell stories to communicate our experience of being alive.
We tell stories in our own distinct voice. Our own unique rhythm and tonality. 

Transformations is a weekly story-telling column. The stories are written by community members who are my students.

From time-to-time we will feature guest writers whom we have invited to contribute to the Transformations series. 

Our stories are about family, love, loss and good times. We hope to make you laugh and cry. Maybe we will convince you to tell your stories.
— Kathrin Seitz, editor

"Everyone, when they get quiet, when they become desperately honest with themselves, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there." — Henry Miller

Kathrin Seitz teaches Method Writing in Rockport, New York City and Florida. She can be reached at kathrin@kathrinseitz.com.  

Towards the end of the summer, the campaign headquarters busied itself preparing for a visit by Nixon’s running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, a former Senator from Massachusetts who was picked to balance out the ticket with a popular, moderate New Englander.  Senator Lodge was to speak at a large fundraiser dinner at the Cow Palace, just outside of San Francisco in Daly City.  

The Cow Palace opened in 1941, as part of the WPA Program. As it’s name suggests, it was built to host livestock and agricultural exhibitions, with the first event held at the Cow Palace being the Western Classic Holstein Show in April, followed in November by the first Grand National Livestock Expo, Horse Show and Rodeo. 

Over nearly 80 years, in addition to the annual Grand National, which it still hosts, the Cow Palace has hosted everything from major sporting events and musical concerts, to ice shows, political conventions, religious leaders like Billy Graham Crusade and Martin Luther King; and, since 1948, the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, which has been its oldest continuous tenant. It was, and still is, a cavernous, inelegant building, which always had a faint whiff of methane, not exactly ideal for a cozy sit down dinner for 500 people. 

A week before the scheduled dinner, Dan Brown told me that in addition to my duties handing out programs and running errands, I was to escort Mr. Lodge from his limousine to the podium. When I told my mother this great news, she solemnly pronounced, ‘Well, then, you need to get a haircut as soon as you can and go down to Young Man’s Fancy and get a new pair of dress slacks. Make sure you do that.’

The following week, as promised, Dan Brown made sure I was with him as Senator Lodge’s black limousine pulled up to the entrance to the Cow Palace.  Dan put his arm on my shoulder as we approached the car, and then opened the door.  

“Good evening, Senator. Welcome to San Francisco.  We’re very pleased you can attend tonight. I have to run back in to check on some things, so Nick here will show you to the podium.  Don’t worry, you’re in good hands.”  And with that, he quickly turned back into the Cow Palace.

“Well then, Nick, why don’t you show me the way,” the Senator said politely, as he followed my lead, surrounded by three secret servicemen.

The man had an aura of calmness and respectability that even a nervous teen-ager couldn’t help but notice and appreciate. 

As we arrived backstage behind the large curtain from which he would shortly emerge, Senator Lodge turned to me, extended his hand, and said in his natural statesmen-like tone, “Thank you very much, Nick. And thank you for all the work you’ve done this summer for our campaign.” 

Thus ended my summer of 1960.  That fall marked a turning point in presidential campaigns, highlighted by the first live televised debates between candidates, which I watched in their entirety.  And even as a 13 year-old, it was clear to me that Richard Nixon was totally outmatched in the first debate with John F. Kennedy, an impression that he could never recover from that fall.

A few years later, headed back to boarding school, I was getting out of a taxi at the airport with my bags, a skycap came up and asked if I needed help with my bags.  I looked up and the first thing I saw was the nametag pinned to his blue jacket, just above his heart. It read, Dan Brown.

I looked at him, and sure enough, it was the same man I worked for a few summers before.  We didn’t have time to do anything more than shake hands and exchange a few pleasantries as he checked my bag at the curb.  When I reached in my pocket to get some money to tip him, he said with a big smile, ‘Not necessary, Nick.  It’s great to see you, safe travels wherever you’re going.’

I never saw Dan Brown again. That fall the Cuban Missile crisis erupted, and two years later, the country was beginning to get mired down in the Vietnam War, followed by the turbulence of the mid-late ‘60s.  An era had clearly ended, long since forgotten, never to return.