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Mr. Fix-It: A Mechanic Turns from Trying to Save Muni to Trying to Save the World 

Wednesday, Jun 19 2013

"Here's how you gotta start your story, dude," says Mike Cheney, matter-of-factly. "You create this scene where there's some sort of ceremony out on Altamont Pass and they're removing the last windmill. They're pulling down that sucker like it's a statue of Saddam Hussein!"

In Cheney's vision, energy sources — including the windmill — will be supplanted by the one he's invented, which will set right the existing, flawed order.

He is a man with a need to fix all that is broken. Appropriately, he's a diesel mechanic, but Cheney is driven to do far more than repair corporeal buses with corporeal wrenches. In 33 years and change as a front-line Muni employee, Cheney has blown the whistle dozens of times, busting up overtime schemes and campaigns of waste and deceit that bled the system's coffers and compromised the safety of riders and workers. His earnest letters to half a dozen mayors and countless government officials and reporters are — invariably — signed "Michael B. Cheney, Civil Servant."

Every decade and change, a big Mike Cheney story splashes across a San Francisco newspaper. In 1988, a San Francisco Examiner piece titled "'Pit Bull' Hounds Muni Management" was illustrated via a bus sporting Cujo fangs. Ten years later, an Ex article called "The Man Who Would Be Muni King" — in which Cheney held forth on how he'd fix the ailing system — was knocked off the front page of the paper's later editions when an N-Judah train rumbled between Embarcadero and Van Ness stations without a driver.

Cheney's drive to mend all he surveys has led to no small amount of personal destruction. But, from this place, he recently conjured the greatest repair job of his life: Inspired by the towering America's Cup yachts gliding across the bay, he was struck with the concept of a wind energy system he has since christened the "SailWing." There's no limit to what this could fix, Cheney thinks: After that last windmill is yanked out — in goes a SailWing. "There you go, dude! That's how you start your story."

Maybe the next Mike Cheney story, circa 2028, will begin like that. But not this one.

This one starts here: In, on, or under a bus — which is where you'd find Cheney on most days going back to 1979. And that's where, perhaps 20 years back, a stranger sought him out. Cheney, to this day, has no idea who that man was. But this fellow mechanic knew him: Cheney was the whistleblower; the guy who'd call in the press — or the feds. The chronic, throbbing pain in Muni management's ass.

The stranger had a problem. The hulking cranes used to hoist Muni vehicles in his repair facility were decrepit and in dire need of replacement. Could Cheney take a look at them? Careful to follow Muni protocol, Cheney ambled over to his colleague's shop — but took care not to set foot within. "Whaddya want me to do, dude?" he recalls asking from the street.

"You've already done it," Cheney was told. "You see those guys over there? Those are the bosses. They see me talking to you, they know what we're talking about — and they know who you are."

The stranger later called Cheney to inform him the cranes had been replaced. The two have never spoken since.

San Francisco, where Cheney was born and raised, is an increasingly ephemeral town. People come and go. City workers and the inhabitants who depend upon their services are a rotating cast, but city institutions are permanent.

This remains a city in which good intentions are valued more than results. Addressing problems via the tried and true "put it off, put it off, blow it off" method is easier than ever in a society where everyone has the technological wherewithal to complain instantaneously, but little time or inclination to do more.

The dysfunctionality of our transit system is, ever increasingly, assumed to be its natural state. Complaining about Muni is, for San Franciscans, the closest thing we have to a uniting, even sovereign force.

Cheney wants no part of this. Every time he's ripped Muni, called in the press, or filed a report with the FBI or other federal agencies — and he's gone to the feds on at least half a dozen occasions in his estimation — Cheney didn't just point out a problem. He proposed solutions. Complaints are cheap. Fixes have value. And Cheney is hard-wired to fix. But also to fight.

"I see these things," he says, a succession of Muni battles playing on a loop in his mind's eye, "and I just can't help myself."

And he hasn't helped himself. Muni passengers able to tweet #MuniFail on a train without doors randomly popping open in the rain, brake lines failing, or a hefty chunk of their fare dollars being wasted via inefficiencies or funneled into the pockets of middle managers on overtime have benefited from Cheney's efforts. He has not.

"Here's a mechanic trying to tell managers how to run their business. And they resent that," says Jack Blanchfield, Muni's former general superintendent of diesel maintenance — and one of those managers.

Blanchfield sees Cheney as someone who has bettered passengers' lives: "There are a lot of improvements directly related to him." Intriguingly, one of those improvements was Cheney's yearslong drive to clean up Muni's overtime practices which exposed, among other things, that Blanchfield's overtime haul put his income on par with Muni's then-general manager.

Not everyone takes kindly to that sort of thing: "Mike had a lot of real good ideas," Blanchfield continues, "but if you don't get along with everybody in meetings, they take away your chair and you're not invited no more."

And that's why Cheney went to the press or the law, or wielded that possibility like a cudgel, when Muni spent hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing wheelchair lift equipment its own workers could have crafted for pennies on the dollar; crippled service by warehousing buses with minor deficiencies for months on end; gamed vehicle safety inspections; or left functioning cameras on the shelves while broken ones missed beatings, robberies, or people on the tracks.

Three decades of being the ultimate Muni kvetch led to repercussions both on and off the job. The pugnacity and single-mindedness necessary to confront a vast bureaucracy content with the status quo is not something that switches off at shift's end. The same personal attributes that have allowed Cheney to, repeatedly, undo Muni's system have also undone him outside of it. "There's a thread of sorrow woven through the fabric of Mike's makeup," says Jan Schnurr, his former wife of 24 years. "But he had to have this kind of life."

Mike Cheney wouldn't stand out on one of the buses he keeps running. He's got the build and lumbering gait of a man who has spent a career hoisting heavy objects, with bright eyes that light up behind owlish glasses. He now serves as a diesel trainer after his back gave out for good last year, curtailing his career as a heavy-duty mechanic. Cheney lives alone in a small but pristine Richmond District apartment an 18-minute bus trip from his boyhood home. But, at long last, he's a happy man. Because, this time, he's figured out how to fix everything.

Gorgeous, astoundingly detailed pencil sketches of men and machines are scattered throughout Cheney's apartment. Cheney's decision to follow his father and grandfather into the mechanical vocation was cemented only after his loss of not one but two major artistic opportunities via presidential actions: An Olympic coloring book was nixed after Jimmy Carter boycotted the Moscow Games. A stamp commemorating the work of air traffic controllers crashed and burned after Ronald Reagan fired them en masse. (Some powerful bureaucracies you can fight, and some you can't). But, glancing at the images Cheney created, his art has most certainly imitated his life.

"The best things Mike drew were always black and white. He struggles with color," says Cheney's older brother, Bob. "And I felt that was part of his personality as well. He sees things as one way or the other — there's not a lot of subtlety with him. If you're going to take on the bureaucracy, that's what gives you the strength to keep fighting. But..." Bob's voice trails off, and he takes a deep breath. "It can make him challenging."

Challenges abound. In his early days at Muni, Cheney was diagnosed with manic depression. For his family, this explained a lot: "With his predisposition to do things right, it made it even more clear for Mike what needed to be done," recalls Bob. "Even if it wasn't so clear for everyone else."

Cheney's father, David, was blunter back then, quipping, "Now we know what's wrong with him."

But that's not true. The manic depression helps to explain Cheney's endless reserves of energy and pit bull tenacity. But it doesn't account for what he did with them: his overriding need to fix everything. "Mike wants to put things in order because everything was out of order," says his younger sister, Deborah May. "There was too much we couldn't do. There was too much we couldn't fix."

Childhood effectively ended at age 7 for Cheney. His mother, Barbara, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the Cheney home soon became a de facto hospital. Gone were the idyllic San Francisco memories of romping through the park or trick-or-treating at Willie Mays' house and being handed a tiny, autographed bat. By the time Cheney was a teenager, the family was bankrupt, had lost its home, and Barbara was in a real hospital — immobile and unable to speak, she was relegated to Laguna Honda as a ward of the state. Cheney took the 10-Monterey bus to see her on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Cheney's father then divorced the mother of his five children, and married a woman he'd been seeing on the side, who had four kids of her own. They had two more children, which brought the grand total to 11. Barbara Cheney continued to wither in San Francisco's hospital of last resort. In 1972, Mike returned home from Navy boot camp to see her for the last time: "Tubes were coming in, tubes were coming out. One blink was yes, two blinks was no." Forty years later, he is still shattered by the memory: "I watched my mother completely waste away. And if you don't learn something from that, you are a fool."

What Cheney learned is that no one could do anything worse to him than what he'd already experienced. "Mike couldn't fix mom," recalls Bob. "So he was going to fix something else." And this he did — to the chagrin of a legion of Muni managers.

Cheney taps the brake and slows to a stop like every other driver trapped behind the No. 28 bus on 19th Avenue. There's no hurry, but he's irritated nevertheless. That bus would be moving faster, damn it, if only Muni's powers-that-be would listen to him.

For decades, Cheney has been preaching the "skip-stop method": a system in which an "A" bus or train picks up and drops off passengers at every other stop and a "B" vehicle serves the others. This practice has reduced travel times and increased carrying capacities worldwide while reducing wear and tear on vehicles no longer required to stop and start as often ("It's inertia, dude!"). Cheney laid out his case for skip-stopping "with the precision of an engineering professor" in that '98 article.

A long, straight, flat route like the 28 would be perfect for skip-stopping, and would make the perfect test case. But it's never happened. "And why won't they do it?" Cheney asks, his voice rising and leaving little time for an answer to this question. "Because it'd work!

"You take the bumpers out of a pinball machine, the ball gets to the bottom faster, right? It's just physics, dude!" He's yelling now. "You see that bus? There's people hanging out the windows. Because they're stopping at every stop! You don't need to stop at every stop!" Why must it fall upon him to point out the obvious, again and again and again? "I'm just a fucking mechanic!" he cries.

Cheney takes a deep breath and shakes his head. The 28 moves forward and so does he. Slowly. "I'm right. They're wrong. It's just that simple." But little in the realm of Muni politics is ever simple.

The files of internal Muni documents and myriad newspaper articles Cheney fastidiously maintains is several feet thick. Today's readers might bog down while wading into his countless campaigns to ensure safety and efficiency on vehicles that long ago aged out of the system. But those battles were, most assuredly, written up, day after day and year after year, for the newspaper readers of the time. It affected their lives — and, in some cases, still affects yours.

Cheney's public campaign to curtail overtime abuses sparked a criminal probe. But that inquiry ran aground in 1985, when investigators noted that their methods couldn't ensnare time-card cheats colluding with supervisors. This was the exact scenario Cheney warned of.

After a contentious year of scratching and clawing, Cheney unearthed handwritten foreman logs (Cheney's Muni colleagues often use him as a conduit for passing along information while keeping themselves insulated from the blowback of publicly doing so). These ledgers revealed favored Muni supervisors were bagging up to $6,000 in monthly overtime (around $13,000 in 2013 dollars).

Fast-forwarding through another vitriolic year, Cheney's painstakingly detailed communiques to the press and Board of Supervisors ("Michael B. Cheney, Civil Servant") led to damning audits of first Muni and then the entire city. One agonizing year hence, in 1988, Cheney helped Board of Supervisors President Wendy Nelder draft a citywide overtime law. "Mike came into my office a lot. He was very serious; I don't remember him smiling a lot," recalls Nelder. "If the government exists to serve the people, you'd hope to have a Mike Cheney in every department." She laughs. "He would make a good Muni king."

But no one is offering up any thrones. And this story doesn't exactly end happily ever after.

Nelder's overtime law was, within two decades, utterly ignored. And yet, coming in an era when city employees could jack up their pensions via overtime pay, it potentially saved the city millions. Considering the long-term, ongoing nature of pension payments, it may yet.

For Cheney, it was a strange and terrible time. In the midst of his overtime abuse crusade, superiors hit him with three pages of misconduct violations, the most damning of which was an accusation he'd threatened to harm Mayor Dianne Feinstein — a charge he denies to this day: "They were painting me as a Dan White."

It was effective: "My colleagues would say, 'What's with you? This guy's a troublemaker. Why are you listening to this mechanic instead of the people who are hired with great salaries for their expertise in transit?'" recalls former Supervisor Jim Gonzalez.

Gonzalez has no regrets about trusting Cheney over Muni higher-ups. But, using diplomatic phrasings Cheney never could, the former supervisor notes that Muni bosses' disparagement — and Cheney's utter inability to adopt "the subtle, poised monotone of a transit official" — had their effect on other city politicos.

On the work floor, Cheney encountered fellow mechanics who were none too pleased he was unraveling their lucrative overtime game. There were direct threats. Others were indirect.

One day, on Alemany Boulevard, the chain in Cheney's motorcycle inexplicably slipped, causing him to lose power and coast to a stop. Upon further inspection, he discovered a washer had failed. But it didn't fail in an entirely conventional manner. It had, somehow, come undone and was rattling around alongside its securing bolt — which had come undone as well. The chain could have just as easily locked up instead of merely slipping — which would have stopped the bike as abruptly as slamming into a wall.

Asked what kind of knowledge it would take to tamper with the motorcycle, Cheney offers a wan smile: "You'd have to be a mechanic."

"What Cheney uncovered needed to be uncovered and needed to be addressed," then-Muni general Manager William Stead told the Examiner in 1988 about rampant overtime abuse. "He's very bright and has some real good ideas — it's just that most of them can't be absorbed into the system because they hit like hand grenades."

Stead took exception to Cheney's public accusations of extortion. Yet, within that '88 article, he admitted offering Cheney the option of being brought up on character-tarnishing charges or having them dropped and accepting a higher-paying job — on the condition of press silence.

"Muni needs people like him. But a family unit and everyone around you is not one big Muni," says Michelle Cheney, Mike's youngest daughter. "If you're always on the lookout for flaws, you will find them. But people get tired of that. And they don't stick around."

Mike Cheney has spent his life repairing gears, but his personality has none. He runs at one speed. Schnurr, his erstwhile wife of 24 years, thinks of him whenever she reads their youngest grandchild The Little Engine That Could. "Mike isn't going to stop for anything," she says. But then she stops smiling. That's the problem: He isn't going to stop for anything — or anyone. "Mike was always right about Muni. But people don't like to be fixed. I don't know if he realizes that."

He does. He realizes what he's doing. But Cheney — twice divorced and separated from the third future former Mrs. Cheney — can't help himself. He isn't going to stop. He simply doesn't know how.

"I understand I'm unrelenting. Having the manic depressive disorder and doing the work I do, I know I wear on people. I don't blame them!" he says.

"Sometimes I'm difficult to be with when I'm alone."

Mike Cheney sits at the handcrafted drafting table where his abortive coloring book and air traffic controller stamps first took shape. He gazes out his window as the sun dips lazily behind the wooded hills of the Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge. For any San Franciscan born or made, it's hard to imagine a better view. And, for Cheney, it's hard to imagine a better place. "This ain't a bad way to live," he says. "I am exactly where I want to be right now."

And that's because of the latest item created on that drafting table.

Watching Cheney explain the SailWing to engineers, newspaper photographers, or random folks at the cafe who profess a fondness for sailing is a bit like watching a foreigner asking for directions. If Cheney's conversation partner isn't conversant in mechanical and nautical terms, he does what many people do when confronted with a language barrier — talk louder.

During a recent conversation with an engineer fluent in both tongues, however, the conversation didn't get louder, but faster. Terms the non-mechanically inclined only hear on Car Talk — "solenoids!" "torque converters!" — spun out of a back-and-forth exchange that soon reached the velocity of screwball comedy pitter-patter. And then, a pregnant pause: The engineer exclaimed, "It's an engine!"

And Cheney just melted.

Cheney likes to quip that he's devised an internal combustion engine sans the internal combustion. But, at first glance, it looks exactly like the gargantuan fixed "sail wings" protruding from the AC72 America's Cup yachts flitting about San Francisco Bay. Except instead of being mounted to a boat of questionable seaworthiness, the SailWing Engine will connect to a series of unseen gears which, in turn, "will generate hydraulic power like gangbusters." Taking a break from a highly technical explanation, Cheney adds that "hydraulic power kicks ass."

Imagine a landscape of 100-foot-tall SailWing Engines swinging rhythmically in a horizontal back-and-forth resembling the beauty queen wave. Beneath each, a series of gears force synthetic oil through an ever-shrinking series of portals. This is a "positive displacement pump," and it generates incredible amounts of hydraulic pressure. This, in turn, could be converted into electrical power by turning generators akin to those at a hydraulic dam. Or you could use the hydraulic pressure to pump water and then you could spin generators with that. Possibilities abound; port a series of SailWings to a generator — "or even a dynamo!" — and "you could fire them off like pistons in an engine — boom, boom, boom!"

While the gears whir below ground, what you'll see on terra firma is the SailWing turning perhaps 180 degrees before shutters resembling the slats on venetian blinds open up, "de-winding" the metallic sail. The device will disengage from the gears, allowing the SailWing to spin back to its initial position. The gears will be engaged once again, initiating another "power stroke." Cheney likens the process to an oar powering through the water, then "disengaging" and being returned for another stroke.

The vision of rolling hillsides dotted with hulking, louvered metallic sails oscillating hither and yon in the breeze is an exotic one. But every system mentioned above — and many more that were excluded in the name of expediency — are already employed in cars or even bikes. (There's even a shutter system in the grill of the 2013 Dodge Dart.) Paraphrasing Archimedes, Cheney says that "if you give me a lever large enough, I can lift the world." He pauses. "This is a pretty big lever."

It's a lever that Cheney thinks could deliver untold amounts of truly renewable power on a level windmills can't touch — while not doubling as an open-air abattoir for birds and bats as windmills do. At long last, Mike Cheney feels he can lift the world.

When Mike Cheney was 16 years old, Lincoln High School science teacher Blair Oram's classroom was his refuge; it was a retreat from both a broken home and the persistent lunchtime riots that broke out in the cafeteria. In 1969, Oram selected Cheney as one of just two students from California to attend the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation's 90th anniversary fete for the incandescent light bulb. "Mike had a brain that was always thinking of things to invent," recalls Oram. "I valued him."

It was a life-altering trip: The crème of the nation's high-school students were informed that the world's continued reckless and polluting energy consumption would doom us all, and, perhaps, the tipping point had come and gone ("End of the world shit, dude!"). It would fall on another generation — perhaps one of those 100 students and teachers — to solve this problem.

"I've got too much to do," affirms Cheney. "There isn't enough time in a lifetime to get done what I want to get done." But that 16-year-old is now 61. Immortality is a temporary condition; so if Oracle CEO and yachting billionaire Larry Ellison (whom Cheney refers to, respectfully, as "Mr. Ellison") wants to get involved with the device his America's Cup boats inspired, odds are he won't have to drive too hard a bargain. Dan Ficher, a fellow Muni mechanic and hydraulics maven Cheney has brought in as a partner, notes that "it'd be nice to get a little check. But we have jobs. We're not starving artists." Cheney is blunter. He doesn't give a damn about making any money.

"I have not applied for a foreign patent. I hope they steal it. I hope they build them all over China," he says. Domestically, he reveals, he's already thought of four easy ways to break his patent. "This doesn't belong to me. It belongs to the planet. To the people.

"Maybe it'll take 40 years — but I've started the discussion." He smiles. "The equation is on the blackboard."

And that's how this story ends, dude.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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