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Wednesday, Dec 30 1998

Rules of Engagement
I knew I'd be treading onto unfamiliar terrain -- his preferred terrain -- without the necessary weaponry. I knew I would be going head to head with a skilled and wily adversary, a man schooled since birth in the secret arts of gaining and keeping the upper hand and crushing enemies under his heel with maddening subtlety.

Yes, I knew all this. And still, I willingly -- foolishly you might say -- entered the arena of negotiation with investment banker and superrich guy F. Warren Hellman.

The task at hand: to agree on a time and place where we could finally, after months of building acrimony, settle a personal score on the manly field of honor. For the sake of those just joining us, I'll recap the long-running Cothran-Hellman feud:

Back in November, I received word through intermediaries -- several layers of them actually -- that Hellman was mad as a hornet. I had called him "crusty old Warren Hellman" in this column, and while I thought it a passing remark, perhaps not as well-researched as it could have been, he took it as the gravest of insults.

You see, it was where the comment came from that stung so badly. It'd come from the likes of me -- a college dropout who doesn't know a bordeaux from a cab, a stock from an option, a Renoir from a Monet, an Aston Martin from a Stutz Bearcat, or a Waterford from a Baccarat. And I had insulted him -- a multimillionaire baron of finance, a man married to a ballerina, a member in long standing of San Francisco's gentry, a member of the inner circle of the city's ancien regime.

Well, he couldn't just let that sort of thing stand. He had centuries of class distinction to defend. If he didn't, who knows what horrors the little people would think possible? One shudders (cue the sound of a thousand rattling fine china teacups in Pacific Heights parlors) to even imagine.

The course was clear: I had to be crushed.
But it would not be a simple crushing.
You see, Hellman operates in a rarefied world, one of subtle, complex rules of engagement. My punishment would be meted out in a footrace with the great man, to be sure. But the magnitude of my offense required a greater degree of humiliation, one that couldn't be satisfied by simply dusting me in said race.

No, the race would merely be the coup de gráce. The beginning of my lesson in power and the proper execution of same would take place during the pre-race negotiations, high above San Francisco in a soundproof gym, on a highly secure floor of the Maritime Plaza building.

Where no one could hear me scream.

I had agreed back in November to race Hellman at an undetermined time and place. Arranging a meeting to establish the time and place was excruciating, the first step in Hellman's design to break me.

For weeks I would call the office of Hellman's political aide-de-camp, Mark Mosher, the executive director of the Downtown Conspiracy to Crush Progressive Politics Now and Forever (a body over which Hellman is currently serving as grand vizier). I would talk to Mosher's cheerful and helpful assistant, Elizabeth. She would then call across several high-rises to Hellman's scheduling secretary, Sharon. Sharon would walk the few feet into Hellman's office and see just when Warren was available to meet with me to discuss the exact nature, extent, and location of my punishment.

And that was just the flow of information from me to him. Imagine the complexity and glacial pace of the communication back in my direction. It was a simple footrace, but arranging to meet to discuss arranging the race was taking on a life of its own.

I quickly realized the delay was an intentional distraction. As I became overly focused on a pre-race meeting, my class antagonism -- the most important, and perhaps only, advantage I could tap into for the race -- was waning as time dragged on.

Oh, what a wily one you are, Senor Hellman, I remember thinking to myself. So this is how it works, does it? So this is what they call the softening of the adversary.

Eventually, after weeks of trying, I got a meeting date: Dec. 10. But there was a catch: I had to attend a stretch class with Hellman. His private stretch class, in his private gym.

I was puzzled. What could he be up to?
But I accepted. To turn him down would have been a sign of weakness.
Little did I know that he was playing me like a finely tuned Stradivarius. He was appealing to my fragile sense of manhood. Of course I would accept. He knew that. He never doubted it. As it would tragically turn out, he had me right where he wanted me, moving me like a passive pawn on the great chessboard of life.

I showed up at the appointed hour and was led into Hellman's corner office: 11th floor, big windows, a view of San Francisco Bay so large it could choke a whale.

He told me a touching story about a life travail he'd experienced. It was a travail similar to one currently going on in my life, so it was all the more powerful. As he talked, I began to see him in human terms: Hey, this guy ain't that bad. He has problems just like the rest ...

I stopped myself. My God, he was cunning. He must have known his story would resonate. But how? Dear Lord, had he done research on me? Did he find that old criminal case in the East Bay? Was this the point of the delay in meeting me? To have a private eye provide him the information necessary to win advantage?

I stopped myself again. I was falling prey to paranoia.
Oh mercy, was this part of his design too?
In a matter of minutes I had already been knocked off balance.
Little did I realize that the worst was yet to come.

About The Author

George Cothran


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