A tale of transport

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“Politicians and diapers need changing…and for the same reason.” – a card slipped to me by a gentleman shopper my age at Trader Joe’s, 1095 Hyde St. 

Gold Mountain – The last time I visited 1095 Hyde at California Street, it was a Safeway supermarket situated on the top deck of the same busy and practical building located at one of the major pivot points of foot traffic on the slopes of Nob Hill – an underground parking garage.

The market and pharmacy on the top deck are constructed of the same pre-fabricated, pre-stressed concrete girders and poured slab. The building makes great use of clerestory windows for natural lighting and there is ample off-street parking relieved by an elevator giving access to the lower parking decks.

The cable car line diverges on the corner, the Powell & Hyde splitting off down one of the city’s steepest grades and continuing down to the waterfront at Aquatic Park; the Van Ness and California Street Line continues west to Van Ness Avenue, the principal artery to Pacific Coast Highway 101 and the Golden Gate Bridge. Shaded benches line the California Street perimeter of the parking lot, and a handy bench by the front door provides a great place for your ride to pull in, load your groceries, and hit the street in a civilized and graceful way.

It’s all still there, but today it’s called Trader Joe’s, an upscale, upcountry, hip grocery chain.

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What was taught, what was told, what was learned in that long-ago year of 1969 was the vital role of conflict in business, commerce, banking, agriculture, transport, and, ultimately – politics.

Cesar Chavez was then a name in the daily headlines, not the busiest inner city streets throughout the southwestern U.S. As head of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, he put a lot of pressure on produce growers to allow elections for collective bargaining through union representation.

He was effective, and the struggle was at a near-dead stymie, the growers seeking and getting writs and the union just as quickly persuading courts to grant injunctions.

At that point, the conflict had centered on the highly perishable crop of table grapes coming off in the Central Valley surrounding Delano, Chavez’ home base of operations.

People in the cities were supporting the cause by organizing table grape boycotts, and the more militant focused on Safeway’s stubborn determination to market the product, no matter if strikebreakers organized by the Teamsters Union through sweetheart deals with the major growers picked them, or not.

I came to the story late; it was in the hands of the world-weary bureaucrat scribblers who follow cases through federal courts, updating the glacial pace of events with ponderous and rotund phrases both legal and politically acceptable to the barristers.

But I found a fireball radical, a practitioner of direct action protestation who had been giving Safeway fits everywhere from Dallas to L.A., Seattle to the Rio Grande valley.

She spoke Spanish like a Chicana, had worked all over Latin America from Mexico to points far, far south, and knew how to motivate a crew of Hispanic women to do just what she needed them to do in lettuce sheds, tomato packing plants, citrus processing lines – and the like. When I asked her name, my pen poised over my notebook, she just laughed, rocked her head back and said something in Spanish that made all the women titter, then added a rejoinder that made them slap their knees and horse laugh.

I learned then and there that Hispanic women will show you they like you when they get ready by telling you, “I am called…”

In a briefing at the college, she told her helpers, in Spanish, that the best items to go after first were in the spice racks.

The bottles are little and you can grab dozens of them and put them in your cart. It takes them a lot of time to re-stock them.” Then she told them to load ice cream and yogurt, fish, beef and port, popsicles, veggies, fruit, small packages of sundries such as razor blades, aspirin, buttons, bows, furbelows, as well as entire racks of bread, jams, jellies, salad dressings. Just keep shopping until the cart is jammed full, and then…

And then, just walk out the door.

San Francisco’s finest had caught the act in other neighborhoods. They were ready and standing by with summons books, filling them out and citing accused offenders to appear in municipal court to answer charges the equivalent of disorderly conduct – or some such.

After all, the city is, well, The City, and Nob Hill is – you know, Nob HILL! It’s the home of the nattering nabobs of negativism, as a White House speechwriter once caused Vice President Spiro Agnew to say, to the delight of pundits everywhere. 

Within only a few minutes, the crew had hit the shelves as hard as they could and were back in cars, vans and pickups, ready to go back to the Mission District with their summons in hand.

By the time my student days were over, the Nixon Administration had a plan through the works and in place. One of the first stories I wrote for a paycheck was about a reception for the Chilean trade attache hosted by the San Francisco-Oakland Port Authority.

Suddenly, what had been prohibited for decades was now totally okay.

Refrigerated ocean ships would be bringing – wait for it – table grapes grown in Chile to markets throughout the Pacific ports and to all those on the Gulf Coast.

The rest is history, the facts brought forth by the Church Senate Committee on the CIA’s involvement with the overthrow of President Salvador Allende, a Socialist M.D. who specialized in pathology, and the elevation by coup of the war criminal Admiral Augusto Pinochet. The revelations of the “disappeared” in Chilean society, the torture, beatings, midnight executions and incarceration of private prisons located in peoples’ homes and places of business – that was all in the future.

What I knew while I was getting stoned on the bosses’ martinis was that some days, the dragon wins and the golden rule is still operative.

He who has the gold makes the rules.”

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