Dave Del Grande has been working at the city's Central Shops for nearly 25 years. He started as a mechanic and worked his way all the way up to operations director. Any dinged up city vehicle -- ranging from the gardening implements at Harding Park Golf Course to police cars and fire rigs -- comes through his maintenance yard. All told, Del Grande oversees the well-being of more than 6,500 cars, trucks, streetsweepers, motorcycles, meter maid vehicles, and more.
And yet, he's not even the boss of his own office. Sure, he's the operations director. But Shops -- well, she's the queen.
On a recent trip to the administrative offices of the sprawling, Hunters Point mechanical yard, Shops didn't even wait one minute to make her presence known. The 19-year-old gray cat let out a series of high-decibel meows and shambled toward us in an arthritic, Redd Foxx-like gait. "She can't see you , or even hear you," says Del Grande. "But she knows you're here. And she doesn't need to see or hear to walk around this office. She can do it by Braille."
For 19 years, ever since she was a spry kitten, Shops has called the Central Shops office home. In a unique arrangement, the cat was adopted from San Francisco Animal Care and Control by the city department to serve as its mascot. But she's become much more than that.
Just like an authentic queen, Shops has served as the figurehead of the office -- while leaving the real work to folks like Del Grande. Do visitors head all the way out to Hunters Point to give Del Grande and his colleagues food and toys? No way. But for Shops? You bet they do.
So many city employees dropping off vehicles or contractors hawking parts came by with treats for the cat that, for much of her life, she weighed more than 20 pounds. Whenever Del Grande and his colleague Peggy Ho -- who shares her desk with Shops -- took the kitty to Animal Control for her check-ups, the vet would invariably scold the two of them for letting Shops get to be the size of one of the hook-and-ladder trucks Del Grande's mechanics tear apart and put back together.
Sure, he follows the advice. He puts her on diets and changes her food. But he can't help thinking that the vets have been telling him how this fat cat was in danger, health-wise -- for nearly 20 years. Perhaps they just have a knack for making things last at the Central Shops (after all, they do still have a fire truck hailing from the Ford administration
"When you go to a lot of places of business, they have a cold, mechanical feel," says Del Grande, a broad-shouldered man with rock-hard hands and a vise-like handshake honed from years of working on heavy trucks. "There's that sterile feel. But here, with Shops, it's kind of like a home."
Shops, incidentally, is not the only cat at the Central Shops. But she's the only one who's welcome. Perhaps a dozen or more feral cats can be found skulking about the yard -- in fact, one city vehicle that was being sent off to auction turned out to have a litter of kittens residing in it.
Like any mechanic at the yard, Del Grande has experienced the joy of crawling underneath a vehicle only to realize he's slid through a pile of cat shit. Cats instinctually defecate on sand or dirt -- and that includes the sawdust-like material mechanics throw on top of grease spots. Leaving kitty litter boxes around the yard has helped alleviate the crap problem, while the SPCA's feral cat program has captured and spayed some of the cats -- alleviating the "too many damn cats" problem.
At 20 pounds for much of her life, no one was mistaking Shops for a feral cat. But now the aging monarch probably weighs only half that amount -- or maybe even less. That weight loss has largely come in the last six months -- a bad sign. She is sleeping even more than most cats these days. "She's running out of gas," says Del Grande -- an unfortunately apt metaphor for the mechanic.
Asked to pose with the cat, the self-professed "dog guy," begins scratching the appreciative kitty on the head.
"She's never run away. There's been doors left open over the last 19 years, and she walks up and looks around -- but she has no desire to step out into the real world," says Del Grande, while still playing with the cat. "And why would she? She's got it made here. She's got it made."
Long after SF Weekly
had finished shooting its photographs, Del Grande was still scratching the happy cat. After 19 years, they're old, old friends.