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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

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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.

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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