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Gaffing Gavin 

In which we head into the Tenderloin on a secret nocturnal mission

Wednesday, Nov 26 2003
On a warm November night, in a rent-controlled penthouse high above the Tenderloin, six members of the anti-Gavin Newsom underground gather in preparation for a night of illegal postering.

Most of them are gay, under 30, and work at white-collar jobs. They hate consumerism, try hard to live alternative lifestyles, and are soft touches for panhandlers. They are the type of folks, in other words, who present a clear and present danger to Christian family values. We are along for the ride, on condition that we use only pseudonyms to identify the participants in this guerrilla-art flying squad.

The group's unofficial leader is "Rye," a book typesetter with a wicked grin. He and a fellow posterer, "Rascal," are serving zucchini rigatoni and French bread to the troops before they hit the streets. As they eat, they discuss why they view Newsom as a political antichrist for his attempts to crack down on the homeless.

Rye brags about a Halloween escapade in which they postered various neighborhoods with "Gavinstein," a graphic transformation of the wealthy mayoral candidate, who has been repeatedly portrayed in the 50-cent newspaper as "handsome" and "John F. Kennedy-like." Gavinstein is scarred and ugly and features thick screws embedded in his neck.

"We put up 200 Gavinsteins in the Civic Center," says Rye. "It was easy, because we disguised ourselves as choirboys with yellow robes."

Tonight's anti-Gavin artwork is a series of hand-drawn posters that aren't likely to be mistaken for Goya's work. On the other hand, they're pointed and even funny: One depicts Newsom as a "jive turkey," his head mounted on the body of a plump Thanksgiving bird.

"People are bombarded by the message that Gavin Newsom cares [about the homeless], and is trying to solve a problem," says "Jacques," a thirtysomething lesbian who works in a used bookstore and writes unpublished fiction. "But if you pay attention, you see that he doesn't care. People vote for his programs out of a sense of caring, but they are not voting in real solidarity with him. He's not an attractive person. We are trying to puncture this myth with our street posters."

"Also, he is not handsome," she adds. "I do not find either Matt Gonzalez nor Gavin Newsom cute, and this is not just because I'm a dyke."

Rascal, a retail-store executive, deadpans, "I got panhandled by a guy who held out his hand and said, 'Cash, not care.'"

"Do you think Kimberly Newsom and Maria Shriver go to the same eyebrow lady?" "Tito," a visual artist, asks no one in particular.

"Let's do some direct action," commands "Red," a female social worker who ministers to homeless people. The guerrillas pick up red half-gallon pails filled with wheat paste and break into groups of three. Dog Bites tags along with Rye, Jacques, and Tito.

The sidewalks are packed with hooded young men playing dice, drunken white men looking for prostitutes, and crackheads searching for their lost souls and, oh yes, some spare change.

Working quickly, the posse hits light poles, electrical boxes, and newspaper boxes. They slap on the paste, smooth down a poster, and swish on a top coat, their eyes always peeled for coppers. A toothless crackhead stares at Turkey Gavin and yells, "Pay my ass! Pay my ass! Tell that raggedy-ass Willie Brown I want him out, too."

Laughing, Jacques suggests that people should be able to work off their traffic tickets by putting up "jive turkey" art. But her smile evaporates as she realizes that one of the posters spells Newsom as "Newom" and San Francisco as "San Franicsco." After a stunned moment, the posterers try to cheer themselves up.

"It doesn't matter – it's a fast read," says Rye.

"People see only a certain percentage of words," Jacques adds.

"Nobody will notice," says Tito, looking downcast.

"This sort of thing happens all the time in advertising," assures Rye.

A police prowl car screeches to a halt near the group on Market Street. Two cops jump out and brace Rye, who is holding a paste pail. One officer smacks a baton menacingly against his open hand.

"What are you doing?" shouts the cop, whose name tag identifies him as Cunningham, M. He looks at Rye's bucket. Is it possible that he thinks it contains steak fajitas?

"Putting up posters," Rye replies, handing the cop a poster.

"Don't you walk away from me," orders Cunningham, M., still smacking his baton as he eyes the poster. "Why are you pasting up this shit?"

Cunningham spots Dog Bites scribbling furiously on a notepad and his attitude seems to soften. "You can stick it up, but not paste it," the cop says. He and his partner get back in their cruiser and drive away.

The posterers shake off the adrenaline rush and immediately start putting up more anti-Newsom propaganda. Someone suggests they should all carry "Support the POA" posters in case of emergency. After plastering a plexiglass-walled bus shelter with jive turkeys, Jacques remarks: "So satisfying, this shelter, such a cool, smooth surface. But, you know, we really should put glitter in the paste."

"I tried it," Tito objects. "It gets all over you – you can't get it off." He adds archly: "It is aesthetically incorrect."

A homeless man asks for five cents. Jacques obliges him with a quarter. The guy asks if she gets paid for putting up the posters. She tells him, "Not with money." Flabbergasted, the guy asks: "Why would you do it?" Then he answers his own question. "Ah. I get it. Because you love to do it." He grins.

At Geary and Larkin, a humongous transvestite is doing a stomp dance on top of a parked late-model Cadillac. S/he jumps off the car, reaches into her purse, grabs a brick, and heaves it through the windshield.

The guerrillas, unperturbed, keep postering.

A bewigged woman is talking to two burly fellows on the sidewalk, puffing a cigarette. "So, he like capped half of L.A.," she giggles, as the art crew slides by her and tags a lamppost.

A guy stumbles out of a seedy bar, sees the red pails, and asks Tito, "How was the fishing?" before passing out on a sewer grate.

By now, Rye and his friends are getting a bit winded. Does it really make any difference if they slap up handbills attacking Newsom in a neighborhood where many residents are less concerned with voting than with getting a fix or a minimum-wage job? Can the richly financed Newsom bandwagon be slowed, even a little, by crude 8-1/2-by-11-inch posters?

Rye indicates a huge Newsom-for-mayor billboard attached to an apartment building.

"Gavin Newsom probably owns that building," Tito grumbles.

Jacques sighs, "He owns it all, he owns it all."

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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