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Cothran 

End Note

Wednesday, Sep 1 1999
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After eight years and nine months as a staff writer and columnist at SF Weekly, I have decided to move on, to pursue, as they say, other interests. This column will be my last act of journalism -- for a while at least. I'm leaving the craft to which I have dedicated my entire professional life. I didn't want to leave journalism. For a lot of reasons, personal and professional growth among them, I'd decided to leave the Weekly. But I discovered quickly, and sadly, that there was nowhere else I could go in local journalism and be happy.

I was left with a choice: leave San Francisco for journalism. Or leave journalism for San Francisco. There was no contest. Like a lot of other blessedly foolish people hereabouts, I always choose San Francisco.

But enough about that. As it turns out San Francisco has already rewarded my fealty. My new job, as an investigator for City Attorney Louise Renne, is something I am truly excited about. It promises to be rewarding in all aspects, full of opportunities for that personal and professional growth I mentioned. Besides, a private tale of professional disappointment would make for a sorry goodbye.

All I really want to do is say thank you.


I complain a lot about how overindulgent this town is. How undeserving people are allowed to occupy important posts in various fields when they wouldn't be tolerated in any other city.

You can name the syndrome after anyone you choose: trust fund radicals, self-promoting authors with bedroom eyes, socialites who marry well (over and over again), sclerotic district attorneys, or whomever. I am sure some people call it the Cothran syndrome. And in many ways they should.

Like a lot of folks, I was a beneficiary of this civic character flaw, which was so aptly described by City Hall lobbyist Marcia Smolens years ago, when she told me, "George, in San Francisco we have one simple rule: Anyone can play."

When I started out I didn't know squat about what I was doing. But I was still allowed to play.

I wrote some pretty awful examples of journalism. I trusted the wrong people, and I trusted them too much. I believed in the myths of the left and never bothered to think outside that box. Consequently, and for many years, I missed seeing all sorts of wonderful corners of this city, and I missed out on telling many wonderful stories. I was a propagandist. I was everything I abhor today.

But this is San Francisco. And I was allowed to stick around until I got it right. Until I learned how to tell a story well.

I was tolerated. I was indulged.

And for that, all I can say is thank you.


Through these years of immaturity, I grew into the city, loving it more and more for its tolerance of me. See, that's the reciprocal deal we make in San Francisco. A city full of people making mistakes and fools of themselves is frustrating, until we realize we are or were one of the fools.

Nearly a decade later, I'm still all tangled up in San Francisco. I couldn't leave it without losing too much of myself. I made my mistakes here. I paid my dues here. And finally, in the last few years, I won my victories and my modicum of respect here, too.

A few years ago, I listened at the edge of a man's bed as he died telling me with his last breaths what he hoped his life had meant. We had at one time been bitter enemies, cursing each other from different sides of a political divide, and he had once threatened to have militants march on my house. I was one of the parade of people who dropped by his house in his final days of battling cancer, each bringing gifts. My gift, which I think he appreciated, was to finally let him have the last word.

And then I drove back to the newsroom and wrote about it.

If I lived anywhere else, this experience would fade into a story to tell over dinner. Here it remains alive. Here, I still smell his death room -- the mixture of marijuana and decay and futile fight -- every time I drive by Ashton Avenue.

Exactly one year ago, I sat on church steps in the Mission and watched as people slowly built a memorial to a beautiful young girl who didn't have to die. Like a lot of beautiful young people needing to reinvent themselves, she had come here from somewhere else and consequently had no townspeople, no family, no friends to celebrate her life in the city where she died. The memorialists barely knew her, but they all knew the loneliness of being young and on your own for the first time, a San Francisco tradition, especially in the Mission.

Guided by a rescue impulse, her S.F. friends built a memorial out of candles and scraps of paper and flowers until it was a sad and beautiful thing that transcended anything a more traditional hometown ritual could have offered.

The friends talked to me and, in a very small way, I tried to comfort them. Then I went to my house up the street and wrote about it for this newspaper.

If I lived anywhere else, that memory would fade. But here I can still feel it. I can still see a fragile boy who used to dance salsa with the girl on heady Saturday nights at the Elbo Room trying desperately to light a candle against the cold evening wind every time I drive past the intersection of 24th and Valencia streets.


But it wasn't all endings. It was a hell of a lot of fun, too.

I got to beat up on people who deserved it. I learned that standing up to bullies is the highest and most gratifying act a journalist can aspire to perform.

I learned other things along the way, too.

Most of all, I learned how to think clearly. That wasn't something I acquired in five years of college. I got every last bit of it in this newsroom, struggling with issues I could barely fathom until, brick by brick, I had built a knowledge of San Francisco too deep to abandon. Until the city and its maddening foibles had become intertwined in my sense of who I am.

Discovering San Francisco, wrestling with it, growing protective of it, and placing its faults and glories into perspective was a process that defined me.

Why would I leave San Francisco?

At my wedding in May, a dear friend who moved back East years ago made a toast wherein he alleged this city wouldn't let me go. I loved that comment. It implied that the city had noticed me, that it had taken me in, that it had assessed me, and judged me worthy of its affections.

But my friend only had it half right.

Fact is, we won't let each other go.

About The Author

George Cothran

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