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White Lies: A Community's Pain Is Soothed by a Bizarre Conspiracy Theory 

Wednesday, Jan 28 2015
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It's not quite 11 a.m. at the Granada Cafe bar in the Excelsior. Your humble narrator is the only one drinking coffee, and the median age in here is been there.

The bar was formerly the adjunct of a sprawling, old-school, "You want ziti with that?"-style Italian restaurant. But, as in the neighborhood writ large, the Italians departed and were replaced by Chinese, and the Granada is now the dimly lit adjunct to a Henry's Hunan Restaurant. "The Chinese," says one elderly patron with a glance over his shoulder, "tend to stay over on that side. They're not much for drinking." The older white men wearing ballcaps emblazoned with battleship classifications tend to stay on this side. They're drinking shots and Bud Lites at 11 in the morning and every group is both together and separate in here.

And, when you think of it, out there, too.

Fair enough. Now, who's heard the story about Dan White?

Grady Lee smiles. He's 82. He's lived in this neighborhood for 60 years and been occupying this bar stool for much of the last 25. He's heard the story since the day White asphyxiated himself in the garage of his Excelsior District home on Oct. 21, 1985, and all the years since. He last heard it as recently as 2011.

"The city made a mistake!" some fellow Excelsior lifer told Lee not quite four years back. "Dan White got away with murder and now he's living the high life in Ireland!"

Lee laughs. He knows better than to believe this. "Look, I've been to Ireland. I don't care if you're a millionaire. Ain't nobody there living the high life."

So, no, Lee does not believe that White — son of the city, class valedictorian, Vietnam vet, cop, firefighter, District 11 supervisor, Twinkie aficionado, cold-blooded murderer of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk — faked his death. He does not believe White, somehow, clandestinely absconded to The Emerald Isle and found the material success he couldn't in this country.

But people do.

"Well, huh," exclaims retired police Capt. Paul Chignell. "That's really funny." Chignell was an old buddy of White's; White handpicked Chignell as the officer he'd surrender to after he gunned down the mayor and Milk in 1978. "I turned myself in at Northern Station to Officer Paul Chignell, who I could trust and I know would do things properly," White said at the time.

Chignell is still doing things properly. "The evidence," he says, "is conclusive that [White] committed suicide in the garage area of the home."

And yet Lee and other Excelsior stalwarts we spoke with have heard the White-to-Ireland scenario for years. Even people unwilling to wholly buy into a convoluted conspiracy theory tend to shrug their shoulders and say things like, "Well, I didn't see them roll the body out of the garage..."

Let's be clear: Dan White is dead. His final resting place, in fact, is easily locatable at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. The nice fellas giving tours of this military graveyard make sure to show you his headstone, second on the tour, right after Admiral Nimitz.

There's little upside in parsing the nuances of a conspiracy theory that is, on its face, banana-farm crazy. What's more relevant is plumbing what's evinced by people convincing themselves this is true or even could be true.

Perhaps this has something to do with the societal forces that got White elected in the first place. And have, since, made him into more of a symbol than a man. A symbol of a place and a time that no longer exist.

White was supported, in part, by people alarmed with the transformation of the city that has led to, among other things, a neighborhood bar being grafted onto a Chinese restaurant. The influx of Latino immigrants in the 1960s and '70s led to a prodigious round of White Flight; White's successful — and unsubtle — campaign slogan was "Unite and Fight With Dan White."

White was referred to in the papers as "an all-American boy" when he rescued a woman from the seventh story during a blaze at the Geneva Towers housing project. And, again, during his trial for double murder.

"All-American" was not a descriptor anyone would think to apply to the Excelsior, then or now. But the all-American boy was a killer. And the neighborhood has transformed; the nostalgic ideal of a bygone San Francisco White embodied and rode to power is gone. And so is he, its physical personification.

And that — that's a lot to take.

On Oct. 21, 1985, White affixed a garden hose to his car's exhaust pipe and ran it into the vehicle's interior. And, as he died, his purported song of choice was "The Fields of Athenry."

No less than parsing the mindset of those who refuse to admit White's death, White's choice of this song to play as he died is intriguing. It's a poignant Irish folk ballad that could bring a stone to tears; it's a profoundly sad and tragic song and fitting music to usher off a sad and tragic life.

But it's much more than that. "The Fields of Athenry" recounts a man's last night in Ireland before being separated from his wife and children and deported to Australia. The song's protagonist stole food to feed his famished offspring and chafed under the yoke of an oppressive government:

By a lonely prison wall

I heard a young man calling

Nothing matters Mary when you're free,

Against the Famine and the Crown

I rebelled; they ran me down

Now you must raise our child with dignity.

And so, Dan White purportedly expired while listening to a song about a man who has committed a crime, but was forced to do so by an unjust government, and is being harshly punished and expelled from society.

As Paul Chignell might say, "Well, huh."

"The Fields of Athenry" was not playing on the jukebox at the Granada on that recent morning. Dennis Philipie had fulfilled his duty for the day — dropping off "The First Lady" at work. Now he's having a shot and a Bud Lite and recounting the glory years of the City College basketball program. Asked about Dan White, he spins around on his stool.

"Dan White? Lemme tell you about Dan White. I played ball in high school with Dan White." He's smiling now. "Dan White? He was a good guy. A real good guy."

Philipie grits his teeth a bit. "But, you know ... he had a breakdown."

And the smile is gone.

Low lie the Fields of Athenry

Where once we watched the small free birds fly.

Our love was on the wing; we had dreams and songs to sing

It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.

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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