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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
I'll take Local Politicians for 200, Alex.
A: 38.
Q: How many phone calls does it take to schedule a dinnertime "interview" with Supervisor Gavin Newsom?

Local Politicians for 400:
A: Three-and-a-half.
Q: Once you actually reach a human being, how many months later will the dinner actually take place?

And for 600, Alex:
A: No.
Q: Will the Man Who Came to Dinner ever get to see the inside of Gavin New-som's home?

But hey, I'm not complaining. Quite frankly, I'm pleased to find that our elected officials generally have more important things to do than throw back the evening chow with the likes of little old me.

Still, it was nice to finally sit down with Gavin, if not at home, than at least at one of his homes away from home: the Balboa Cafe. Gavin, in case you didn't know, is the Balboa's proprietor, which is a nice way of saying the managing general partner of his own little empire -- 13 businesses, including this one, and growing.

Curiously enough, right up until the day of our meeting, dinner had been scheduled to take place at Gavin's notably more notable spot, the PlumpJack Cafe, just a few doors up the block.

The change in venue was announced via voice mail just hours before our meeting. Three-and-a-half months of looking forward to my first taste of PlumpJack, only to be downgraded to the Balboa Burger at the final turn. It seemed pretty obvious that in anticipation of our meeting that day, someone had passed my column before Gavin's eyes for the first time.

I tried not to take it personally.
It was only a Wednesday night in the Marina Triangle, so walking from one end of the Balboa to the other without squeezing your body through a maze of young money was still possible. On the far end of the bar I found Gavin, dressed in basic black power suit, white shirt, and checkered tie, playing politician with one of the regulars. As I stood to the side watching the fresh-faced Gavin reassure a member of his constituency about some enormous foot, or Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence issue (as I imagined), it was quite easy to picture him a few years down the line, when he'll have likely moved from the Triangle to inside the Beltway. I'm sure I wouldn't be the first to compare our own Mr. Newsom with a young Robert Kennedy or pre-fuck-up Clinton.

Sitting down at one of the many vacant white-clothed tables I realized that the move from PlumpJack might have been less personal than I thought. Publicity?

"Have you eaten here before?" asked Gavin.
"Well I've certainly bellied up to the bar once or twice," I replied. "But I don't think I've ever sat down to eat."

The supervisor/restaurateur lamented the fact that most people seem to think of the Balboa as a watering hole, as opposed to a feeding trough.

Let me help you out with that, Gavin:
I'll take dining in the Marina for 400, Alex:
A: 3199 Fillmore.

Q: Where can you find an open table in the Triangle when you've neglected to make a reservation at PlumpJack?

As we settled in with our menus, Gavin seemed genuinely drained. "We just had a long board meeting," he explained. A group of 50 or so residents from the Hartland Welfare Hotel on Geary had come to protest their imminent displacement. "There've been four major fires in the last eight weeks," explained Gavin. "Their vouchers are coming up after 21 and 28 days and they're going to be homeless. I mean, it was riveting in terms of proportionality.

"It's the hardest damn part about the job. The people are sitting there yelling at us, saying, 'You're gonna go home tonight. You're gonna have dinner. You all have places to live. And tomorrow night my voucher's expiring and I have no place to live. And I'm gonna be vilified. And I'm gonna be homeless. And you're cracking down on the homeless. How dare you.'

"And their slumlord, with all due respect, is picking up insurance, and it will be, what, six months, a year, two, three, five years before the residential motel's fixed? What do they do?"

He paused for breath. "It's 345 to 425 bucks a month for some of these places. And spending a night in one is the most horrific experience. You flat out can hear the rats gnawing through the wires. That's rhetoric, but I guarantee you, we had a cat downstairs, the night we were in one of these places in the Tenderloin, that was killed by rats. It was a kitten that had been lost and was down in the basement, and the next morning they found it, and it had been killed by rats.

"Welcome to the shining city on the hill -- San Francisco."
Our waiter interrupted to offer us a drink. Good timing. "Whatever you're having," I told Gavin. The owner of the Balboa ordered us a nice bottle of white.

"Meanwhile," I asked Gavin, "now that we're going to district elections, how much influence will you be expected or allowed to have on those areas?"

"Good question," answered Gavin. "I get to be Pacific Heights, Marina, Cow Hollow. There are no residential hotels here. And I'll tell you, that's the greatest argument against district elections, right there.

"I supported district elections," he added. "I believe in some of the merits, because I think you'll get better representation for certain districts, where you don't have any right now. And you open up the platform to other people to run that couldn't raise 250 to 300,000 dollars to run citywide."

As our waiter returned with our wine, I turned back to the menu, asking Gavin what he'd recommend. "I'm the biggest simpleton when it comes to food," he claimed. "I eat pasta almost seven nights a week, which is hopeless. Honestly," he said, regarding the menu. "This changes often enough and I get good enough feedback that -- go for any of it. Right down to the Balboa Burger, which is what's made us famous since 1913."

I decided, however, to skip the non-PlumpJack burger and instead opted for the appetizer special, potato latkes with sliced salmon, followed by the porterhouse-style pork chop. Gavin remained true to his word, juggling his menu nervously for a second before instructing the waiter, "Just ... bring me the pasta. They know how to make it work."

"What blows me away," I told Gavin, "when I consider your job, is the sheer volume of issues that you need to learn about, know about, and decide about. It scares the hell out of me."

"Let me give you the good and bad news," Gavin replied. "It scares the hell out of you because you're being thoughtful about it. We have all these issues: Ninety percent of them, no one does any research, no one understands, but we pass them because we don't have the time. That's not a criticism of the board, it's a criticism of process, as you point out, that has 60 items a week, that are incredibly intense. But by definition, with two or three staff people, we'll never understand. And that's not good. It's a fundamental flaw with government.

"You're expected to be up on every damn issue. You're expected to be proactive on those issues and understand the details and minutiae. But we don't have the resources for that, and so we fake it -- because you expect it. So we act like we know what we're doing. We just act like it. I mean, we never admit that. If we admit that, then we're admitting that we're incompetent.

"But guess what: Half the time we don't know what we're talking about. And we are incompetent, because we don't have the time."

Sitting there listening to Gavin, it suddenly occurred to me: I'm not a reporter. Sure, sure, I'll write this up for the column, but this isn't my beat. Beets are my beat. You know, chitchat and dinner.

Nonetheless, I decided to rise to the occasion.
"So what would solve the problem?" I asked. "Twenty-two supervisors instead of 11?"

"No," answered Gavin. "I think it should be six, or seven rather. We don't need 11. More staff, fewer [elected] people, with much greater accountability. Much greater."

The waiter delivered a fairly amazing plate of potato latkes with smoked salmon, greens, and a sour cream kind of a thing. It was pretty damn good. Meanwhile, Gavin dug into a traditional Caesar salad.

"So, Washington?" I moved on. "Is that in your future?"
"Honestly," admitted Gavin, "if you love politics, and you want to make a difference, if you want to add as much value as you can, then you want to continue to grow because you'll have a greater influence, so hell ..."

"Yes," I finished for him.
"Of course. Why wouldn't I? I couldn't imagine one member of our city council not saying they want to do something greater. I'd love to be in Washington. Are you kidding? Love to be a senator. Love to be president of the United States. I'd love to. I'd love to be mayor.

"If I could wake up tomorrow and be mayor, and make executive decisions, and manage the bureaucracy, I'd be the happiest guy in the city. I really would. Now I just feel like sand on the beach. A wave comes in and you know, five years from now you'd never know there was a footstep there."

"So how old are you?" I asked, thinking of the 13-business empire and the seat on the Board of Supervisors.

"Thirty-one," said Gavin. "Just turned 31. That's another thing. I feel like I'm getting old. How old are you?"

"Thirty-one," I answered.
"See. Exactly. You feel my pain," joked Gavin.
You don't know the half it, I thought, considering the alternative-weekly column and the maxed-out credit cards.

The porterhouse-style pork chop arrived with sides of apple compote and mashed potatoes. Gavin's mystery pasta was in fact a linguine with duck confit.

In lieu of dessert Gavin and I opted for a conversation about his much-publicized pieing some time ago.

"I didn't really hear about it until the mayor got hit," I admitted.
"You see!" joked Gavin. "No one cares about a lowly supervisor. Even the mayor. I'll say this only because I'm not supposed to say it, but I got hit with a pie and then I saw the mayor two days later and the mayor said, 'What the hell happened?' I said, 'They got me with a pie,' and he started laughing. He said, 'Well, what kind of suit were you wearing?'

"Then of course he gets hit a week later and all of a sudden -- a serious issue. Of course his was a little more violent. Watching it, I must say, was more violent than receiving it. And in his case, you're the mayor of the city. It was wrong. And it may have been in good fun. But I was shaking for two hours. Because it did shock the hell out of me. I mean you didn't know what hit you. And then they hit you again. And they hit you again. And you're like: Well, what is this? Is there something that's in the pie that's laced? You know, acid or something? But they didn't even know why they were attacking me, which frustrated me because they could have easily called me, made their point in my office because I don't ever refuse, I'm happy to meet with them, literally."

And just when he wasn't looking I hit Gavin with a little verbal pie of my own, my Final Jeopardy question:

"So, Gavin. Why aren't we eating at PlumpJack?"
Suffice it to say Gavin had his reasons, and I had my Balboa.
As I made my way home that night I reflected on the politician I had just met, as well as the man. Lots of liberal rhetoric and pontification, as Gavin himself would surely call it. Lots of bleeding-heart sentiment. All of which I applaud, if it's backed up with action.

As I said, I'm not a reporter. And I'm already thinking about my next meal with a stripper. Or maybe Alex Trebeck. So all I can offer in the way of conclusion is: Get yourself a table at PlumpJack if you can swing it. And always vote with your heart.

By Barry Levine

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine

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