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.