March 2017


San Francisco 1978
Part XII
Article By: Cornelia Benavidez

San Francisco was reeling. The newspapers, radio, and television programs were awash with pictures and videos of nearly a thousand gory bloated corpses of children, the elderly, pregnant women, teens, women and men. Jim Jones did not suffer this pain and indignity. He ordered himself shot in the head. The Fillmore was hemorrhaging grief, as many people lost not just one person but whole families. I had heard some rumors over the last year that the Peoples Temple was a cult, this just as much regarding the good work they were doing. As far as I was concerned, every time I saw Reverend Jim Jones’ photo in the paper something about him creeped me out. Ordinarily, I would have been curious and visited the church. At that time I was wrapped up in keeping my head above water and taking in my new life around me. Many would have judged my world as being too on the edge; I was sure that people from my hometown might think I was surrounded by crazy kinky artists. Now I felt surrounded by their protective shield, warm and eccentric but sane compared to what was going on in the world of San Francisco’s elite. At work people whispered how could the mayor not know? How could this have gotten by Harvey Milk? The grief was everywhere. Clever men, crazy men, zealous men with shifty or confused intentions have plagued history since biblical times, so that was not new. What was new was, wherever or whoever could be telecasted in living color all over the world. Now in minutes, news can travel around the globe causing those touched by evil to entrench more deeply and the mentally ill to strive for the power that before was unattainable. Jim Jones was such a person. Somehow, Mr. Jones had learned how to bully and cow people by confronting people, even those with power, with their own weaknesses and peccadillos. Jim Jones became the lead of his own mad opera while setting the stage for not only his death and the deaths of his followers, but for what was to come.

The numbness and quiet that overtook the city was best described by San Francisco’s iconic columnist Herb Caen, “Gray skies dripped sadness and sorrow over San Francisco yesterday” Ending with “who would have expected this?” It was another time that the music died.

There were those who had been sounding earlier alarms but such warnings were lost in the sauce of the political jockeying and name-calling between San Francisco’s ultra-left and ultra-right. All of which was shoving most of the voices of those with common sense by forcing them to pick a side or be silent. As the news stories poured in for days the city became traumatized with each horror, such as that Sharon Amos, one of Jones’s most fanatical followers who was living in Georgetown, not at the compound. She, upon hearing Jim Jones’ orders, took her three little children to a bathroom and began slicing their throats in front of a horrified older child. A teen Calvin Douglas was able to grab this fourth child out the bathroom and ran with the shocked girl out the front door. They and Jim Jones Jr, his half-brother, and those on a basketball team in town for a game refused to follow the kill order, returning home to the Bay Area instead. The stories of Congressmen Leo Ryan and his team’s heroism with each coffin that came home brought forth fresh tears. Mayor Moscone publicly cried without shame, bravely admitting that he had been taken in by Jones and should have paid more attention to those that were sounding the alarm. Of course, after a brief week of civility and compassion things shifted quickly as anger mixed with deep resentments and suspicions snaked its way with the fog throughout the streets of the city, permeating the homes of rich and poor alike. It was my friend Shirley who explained the back story on why the city was so on edge with Esther, Henry and Cassie filling in the rest. Earlier in the year there has a growing tension between State Senator Briggs and his blatantly anti-gay initiative. Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk had also humiliated Briggs in a way that they felt was for Briggs’ own good, blocking him from pushing his way into the Castro Street Halloween celebrations. Briggs was all set to take back Castro Street for the children of San Francisco. However, Moscone and Milk personally met Briggs, telling him that the children of San Francisco had many places to trick or treat, and the Castro was for adults so they sent him packing under police escort, and Briggs fumed all the way back to Sacramento. This was a light-hearted victory, as neither Moscone nor Milk heard the buzzing of the hornet’s nest which was about to explode. Nor did they fully realize the depth of the rising tide of resentment, bitterness and disgust brewing in police stations around the city. If it had been a hundred or more years earlier these bastions of progressive and libertarian ways would have been tarred and feathered and ridden out of town. Now, with everyone’s nerves raw from the Jonestown carnage, Moscone could not even imagine that anyone, no matter how conservative their views, would add to San Francisco’s grief. Harvey Milk, on the other hand, had long thought that he might fall to a glassy eyed disgruntled zealot. This due to the many death threats sent his way, especially in 1978. Even though Harvey thought the young conservative superintendent Dan White was dangerous, he too could not imagine to what extreme.

I was up on the roof of Project One before noon, hoping that it was warm enough to have some lunch and maybe play a little guitar while working on some new songs. Sirens sounded in the distance, which was not unusual. Yet, after a while, their persistence became concerning. Esther popped out the roof door as I was starting to stand up. We walked quickly to the wall facing 10th St. and looked over to see ambulances rushing down toward city hall. We looked at each other in astonished dismay as people came pouring from businesses and apartments, heading like lemmings in the same direction, as the police cars and ambulances. Esther turned to me “I came up to see because this felt and sounded different. Remember what we said to each other a few weeks ago?” I nodded a yes. He continued solemnly “Jim Jones’ coming to San Francisco was a kind of beginning and this is the next step and it’s bad, Cornelia, because it’s not over yet and San Francisco may never be the same.” We went back downstairs, Esther to his unit and I to Cassie and Henry’s. I knocked and the door opened to Cassie’s strained face and a few other people from our floor, all huddled around the little TV set. I looked at Henry, asking “What is going on?”

“Someone shot the Mayor and Harvey Milk.” It was not long before Diane Feinstein, covered in Harvey’s blood, made the announcement of them being shot, for me eerily bringing back old memories as a child seeing on TV Jackie O covered in President Kennedy’s blood. We all went numb for hours.

I do not remember much of those hours but I do remember Cassie’s girls and I helping to make some food for everyone and as darkness started to settle down on us Esther came in and told everyone that there was a growing gathering at city hall and we might want to go. We pulled ourselves together and walked down to a huge crowd. It was said that at least thirty thousand people were there, maybe more. Joan Baez was singing Amazing Grace. Every church, witch shop and store brought out boxes of candles and passed them out. There was an out pouring of love and sorrow. Cassie looked around to the endless sea of lights and said “This is hope. Maybe we are not totally lost after all” as Henry held her close and we held our candles high.

In the days that followed everyone huddled close with friends and family. Shirley called and suggested that we go see the animation of the Lord of the Rings. I had read the books and loved the story. The famous scene of Gandalf banishing the Balrog gave me chills and made me wonder what it will take for humans to make it’s stand against real evil. Not against the things we think of as human missteps and mistakes because anyone anywhere can have differing opinions about those things but true evil. Both Shirley and I agreed that when we kid ourselves about that or hide our heads in the preverbal sand; pain, ruin and death are usually the result.

Still, one has to pay the rent and work must go on. The Emporium had been more like an echoing canned music tomb like cavern. Very few shoppers and the make-up chairs sat empty. The cashiers and managers and floor people slunk about bored while trying to look busy. Some stock people and floor people had been sent home early for the last few days. It was Doris who brought up a very large box filled to the gills with all kinds and styles of women’s panties. Working with us again this day was a fairly new girl. She was collage age and one of those culturally mixed San Francisco beauties. High heels, perfect make-up, sexy clothes, very straight long blue black hair to go with her long nails that were perfectly filed. Her pretty little nose turned up in horror at the box and its colorful contents. “What is this!?” she exclaimed.

“It is lady’s underwear which I must surmise you do not wear by your surprise” quipped Doris dryly. The girl’s mouth dropped to a round O with a “you did not just say that” look in her eyes. I prudently did not say anything. I already knew how Doris felt about this girl. She called her little Miss Fashion Plate . . . who now rolled her eyes and said, “I knowww it is underwear but stock has not even priced it yet.”

“Well,” purred back Doris smoothly “You have been complaining all morning about being so bored. Since our stock person is not here I thought I would alleviate your suffering by giving you and us something to do. I will lay them out by name and style. Cornelia will look up the pricing in the stock order book.” With this, Doris reached under the desk and laid a six-inch binder with a big thunk on the counter.

The look on the girl’s face was priceless. “What am I doing?” she squeaked. Doris without a word handed her tools and rolls for price tags.

“Oh no!” her eyes wide, Miss Fashion Plate waved her long hot pink taloned finger in front of Doris. “I am not touching the granny panties and the nylon lace ones ruin my nails. Cornelia can do it. She only has nails on one hand because she plays guitar.”

I broke in, eyebrows raised. “So, don’t you think that the one hand with nails is important to me?” I shot back to the girl.

“Does not matter I am boss and this is how we will do this.” Doris spoke with finality, “And you,” Doris nodded toward the girl, “are here to work. You are not paid to pose around and model.”

“I am paid to be pretty!” exclaimed the girl. “I am half Jewish and half Chinese! I am a fucking Princess! And you are an almost old lady that will be out of here in weeks!”

The very air moved as Doris exploded making me step back a step and little Miss Fashion princess visibly paled.

“You know NOTHING” Doris roared.

Now shaking a bit the girl stepped back, bravely spitting out, “I don’t have to put up with your shit”

Doris was now a tiger, her green blue eyes narrowing and her fading honey colored curls vibrating. “Oh yes, you do because I am your boss and because I, yes I, am the real princess here and you know nothing!”

“You’re crazy” spit and pouted the girl.

“Of course, you think so, you ignorant, vain and foolish girl!” A bunch of Chinese words came flying out of Doris’s mouth, causing the girl’s mouth to drop open. “Now do you want to hear that in Yiddish or French or any of the other six languages I speak perfectly and another five I can get by in? Hmmmmm???”

“I-I don’t understand how . . .” the girl stammered.

“How? Because I am educated, because I am a fucking real princess and real princesses are educated because they must be. When I say, you know nothing it is not some sort of prejudice against your age, your beauty or being Jewish or Chinese. It is because you simply do not know what you should know for a girl your age and because you have never known true fear or hunger or sacrifice and have never bothered to ask your parents deeper questions because you are too selfish.” The words fell like stones hitting the floor and splitting open with raw truth.

The girl and I were frozen where we stood. Doris reached under the cash register and pulled out her purse. She opened it taking out an elegant wallet and handing it to the girl. I moved around Doris so I could see too. On the top was a lovely portrait of Doris at about thirty five or so years old with a crown upon her head with metals and royal jewelry setting off a beautiful gown, looking very regal. Below was her California ID with her real name so long they could barely fit it on the card and it started with Princess. Doris then whipped out a document that started with her Royal Highness.

All haughtiness and pretense was gone from the girl. “Are you Romanian? Or Hungarian? She asked.

“Good, good,” Doris nodded with approval. “Good guess, you can think, there is hope for you.” She took back her things and sighed, “I am the last true polish princess. It may all be argued till the end of time but as far as I know I am the last one of my line.”

“I thought you told me you had daughters?” I asked.

“I do, but I am sure they will all marry commoners. One already has and lost all rights and her children are now commoners. It is mostly for the best I think.”

“I have a headache. I want to go home.” A meek voice said.

“Of course, … I hope you feel better tomorrow.” Doris added graciously.

Days later Shirley and I were down by the Polish Embassy, now a consulate. Shirley went to the bakery to get us some fresh donuts and I slipped in and asked if I could see the portrait of the Princess. I was led to a special alcove and there she was in all her finery. “We have a party for her and her family once a year.” said the man with a gentle pride in his voice. I stood there and thought of her family’s escape and how many of her relatives were not so lucky and ended up dead or in camps. Having royal blood was a death sentence just as much as being Jewish, Gypsy or Gay and its shadow is cast to even this day. My heart was filled with both admiration and sadness for Doris as I smiled and thanked the man who escorted me to the door.

Shirley was waiting for me just outside. “Let’s go to the mission and have something eat. There is a place where they always have live musicians,” she said brightly. “Lets run and catch the bus.” We took off running and laughing… and San Francisco seemed ours once again.

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