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When Cesar Reigned 

An aging journalist remembers 1999, when an election became a revolution, and the city changed forever

Wednesday, Oct 13 1999
If I squeeze my eyelids together until the lashes touch, I can still see the silhouette of a lone student facing down a Muni bus in Union Square. I can see the solid figure of a middle-aged man standing on the roof of a Market Street trolley, his arms outstretched. "Ce - Tsar! Ce - Tsar," an oceanlike throng shouts over and over and over again, until the logic of its chant becomes so irresistible as to transform the world.

I can see the collapsing dome of City Hall, the screaming crowds fleeing the Great Flip-Out, and the mysterious cadaver retrieved, accidentally, from a manhole long after history had forgotten its name.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

It has been 50 years since the revolution, I am 84, and syphilis will soon take my brain. There will be nobody who remembers that time, when we watched a single man grip the reins of history and steer us toward all that is modern and good and true in this, the year 2050.

I was a reporter for the World Media Conspiracy, then quaintly called SF Weekly, and like many of my colleagues, I had drooped into a cynical, journalistic malaise.

During the final moments of the last millennium, an election weighed on this small pueblo like a curse. After years of tyranny, deception, and corruption, citizens were faced with dismal prospects.

They could vote for the incumbent mayor, who had so politicized city business that his associates were under investigation by federal agents. During those days, lucre ran like streams through the city, yet these tributaries all seemed to wend their way through the mayor's office before reaching the sea.

They could choose the main challenger, a man who belonged to a breed once as common as flies, but which disappeared after the Great Cesarean Pogrom: the psychotic, multimillionaire political consultant with delusions of even greater grandeur. A birdlike man, his face would produce floods of the dead language now remembered as consultantspeak. Yet his hair never moved. As he talked, his lifeless eyes bespoke a character kept under the tightest possible control. Citizens would recall this fact following the Great Flip-Out of Nov. 1, 1999.

Or they could choose the Vengeful Ex-Mayor (VenEM), a man who had lost his post to the Siphoning Incumbent four years prior, not least because he was, in the vernacular of that era, a couple of quarts short of a lube job.

This dance of charlatans took place during an era of momentous, yet almost invisible, upheaval. The population was growing by thousands every day, yet the NIMBYs -- a tribe all but forgotten after the Pogrom -- fought tooth and nail to keep apartment buildings from going up. Rents rose, impoverishing all but a few. Many lived in the streets. Others had to leave the city.

The pueblo was infested with heroin, cocaine, and other abuses, to the evident delight of the city's chief prosecutor. Gripped by a strange mental wildness, some blamed the city's ills on Standard Living Units, then called "live-work lofts."

Troubled schools held garage sales to buy books, while corporations were undercharged hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes. And the city's transit system: Well, we all still remember that.

And so it went, with mayoral candidates protesting that they could house people without building homes, better educate youngsters without saying how, and improve transit by adding spaces for Illegal Transit-Impeding Units, then called "automobiles."

It seemed that the end of the millennium would herald an era of walking civic death.

But then something odd occurred.

People awoke on the morning of Nov. 1, 1999, and felt in the air an electric current so powerful that their mouths tasted of copper. Passing strangers acknowledged each other with intimate glances, as if sharing a secret they did not yet understand. Everything that morning -- leaves, street signs, water, grass -- seemed to shimmer and move. Yet the air was absolutely still.

As they happened, one by one, few grasped the import of the trinity of events that we now know simply as the Occurrences.

First, an aide to the Bird Man made an early morning mistake. She may have arrived late with coffee, failed to put toner in the copier, not curtsied; nobody knows. But everyone recalls what happened next. His neck striped with bulging veins, the tightly wound Bird Man reached into his desk, pulled out a loaded brace of MAC-9s, and ran into the streets wearing a pair of bandoleers and screaming at the top of his lungs. Before he could squeeze off a round, he was struck and killed by a bus.

Because the citizenry had half-expected something like this from the Bird Man, they paid it no mind.

Later in the day, the Siphoning Incumbent gave what would be his final speech at City Hall, which had been restored at a cost of $600 million, in part to gild the Grand Dome. Midspeech, those present heard a crackling sound, which they at first confused with the electricity they had felt all morning. They glanced at each other, then began to run.

As the mayor continued speaking, the dome fell. It was as if all the patronage, all the payoffs, the inside construction deals, and the sweetheart contracts, had incrementally added to the molecular weight of the gold on the dome until it became so heavy even acres of Italianate marble could not hold it up.

Also on that day, we don't know when, the Vengeful Ex-Mayor walked into an open manhole. Nobody realized this until much later, when his body was recovered and an autopsy revealed a liver engorged with bile.

Pandemonium ensued in the moments following the Collapse of the Dome. Even those who knew nothing of it ran out into the streets and began yelling, without comprehending exactly why. A strange sense of tragedy -- and liberation -- filled the air. One student brazenly placed himself in front of a Muni bus, defying the all-powerful transit agency.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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