Rupert in his enclosure in Chris's room.

Just Another Day at the Office for EBV John 

By Michelle Olson

A mouse scurries around the five-gallon tank it is enclosed in. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t have the company of an orange, brown-spotted snake slithering around, anticipating its weekly meal. The mouse, desperate for an escape, even jumps on the back of the predator. The saying “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” must have been created by a reptile owner.

As I swallow, thankful for not being reincarnated as a feeder mouse, John Emberton, co-owner of the East Bay Vivarium greets me. (According to the dictionary, vivarium means a place where live animals or plants are kept under conditions simulating their natural environment).

EBV John is just one of the “reptile warriors,” I am interviewing for an article about lack of education in the reptile industry.

“It’s feed day here today, so things are a little hectic,” he says. As he shows me around his “not super-organized store,” I realize it is just one of a hundred things going on at the oldest and largest reptile store in the United States.  All the turtles, tortoises, amphibians, chameleons, scorpions and arachnids are locked up for everyone’s safety.

He asks me if I notice the smell in the air. “Reptiles don’t sweat, perspire, or urinate, but there is still this smell,” he says. “The smell is this, litter.”

Chris holds Rupert.

We enter a side room where EBV John pulls out one white, plastic drawer from a row of six. The shelf is higher than I can count. About 30 white, feeder mice, similar to the one in the snake’s tank, huddle together. They run away from the opening of the drawer, as if they can run from their fate. But they will share the same fate as their furry friend.

Maybe this why so many people don’t warm up to cold-blooded creatures, otherwise known as reptiles. In the United States about 73 million homes own a pet, only six percent own a reptile compared to 63 percent who own a dog, according to a survey conducted for 2011 by the American Pet Product Association.  John has a dog too, a German Shepard names Luna who follows him around, and he lovingly calls “his shadow.”

The East Bay Vivarium produces 99 percent of the food needed for its inhabitants. Not only do they breed feeder mice, but also rats and chickens. This is probably why the room is about the size of an average bedroom with an aisle down the middle.

This room also has another facet, the “hibernation room.” We didn’t go in, but during the summer there are even more spectacles to see. As if the too many to count I saw on this afternoon in February weren’t enough.

On my way out I pass the baby chicks on my right. They are enclosed in a metal tub lined with litter. A light source above the tub provides warmth for the babies. One has made it to adolescence.  But it will probably see its death soon, the circle of life stares me in the face for a second time.

The feeder mouse in his box.

When we get to the adjoining room, the “breeding room,” I get a lesson on reptile lovemaking. He opens another drawer, “Here are two breeding,” he says. He points to the two ball pythons connected at the end of their tails, intertwined like two branches that grew around each other on a fence. The bottom of their end tails are locked together, and swollen. This is like the python version of the high school game, “seven minutes in heaven.”

The reptile population is similar, but different, from the dog and cat population issue. Too many furry friends exist,  there are not enough homes. For reptiles, too many forests are being cleared, making way for golf courses and homes, resulting in  lack of space for their population. Many species have become endangered. This is where the vivarium comes in.

“Ninety percent of what we breed here is endangered,” EBV John told me later on.

Next is the “veggie room,” yes some of these creatures need their salad too. John explains to me how the Berkeley Bowl and the Monterey Market set aside their leftovers for the vivarium. “They would just throw this away,” he says as he pulls the outside of romaine lettuce heads to show me. “And this is the most vitamin-packed part of the plant.” A white, rectangular freezer, that opens from the top, pushed to the back of the room, is filled with “back stock,” or dead, frozen mice.

To the right of the “veggie room,” an aisle lined with blue incubators holds reptile eggs. Different incubators are set at different temperatures depending on the breed. John takes out a Tupperware looking container, and peels off the lid. “Not many people know that reptile eggs are soft.”

I touch the white egg. It is about twice the size of a large chicken egg, and nestled in grey, rock sand. The shell is so soft and warm that I feel its imprint on my right index finger pad for the next half an hour. I touched innocence, like rubbing my best friend’s belly when she was pregnant.

Rupert waits to strike.

We go up the stairs behind the wall that the incubators are against.  The office is at the top, and so are more reptiles, centipedes and millipedes.  He shows me a Mexican Beaded Lizard with black and red spots, measuring about a foot and a half in length. “It’s one of only two poisonous lizards in the world,” he says.

Yes, there are only two types of poisonous lizards in the world. So maybe lizards aren’t as dangerous as many think.

For the first time I get to sit down. John offers me the big, black office chair, while he sits on a yellow cat litter box. He sways back and forth, it’s almost hard for him to sit still. But he gives me his full attention despite looking at his iPhone throughout the questions, which he does apologize for, just another indication of how busy he is.

He has been in the reptile industry for 21 years. He used to come to the Vivarium as a customer, then started working part time. Now he is the co owner, a position he took on in 1995.

“Everyday is different. There is a variety of jobs and animals to work with,” he says. “The customer keeps the whole thing going.”

A pure example comes when an employee climbs the stairs and appears with a Tupperware container. The employee peels the tops off and revels the three, baby red-foot turtles. “What will we give him for them?”

“Seventy dollars in a trade,” replies EBV John. Meaning for each baby the customer will get a $70 credit for the store. Not too shabby.

Rupert, the ball python, meets his meal.

 “The Petco Problem”

Continuing on, John discusses the “Petco problem,” as I call it. “It’s a huge problem because they don’t know what they are doing,” he says.  “But they have the biggest face in retail.”

In October 2002, a lawsuit was filed by the City of San Francisco to keep the company from selling live animals in San Francisco. The charges were a result of a lack of action by Petco after the San Francisco Department of Animal & Control Department gave it “numerous warnings and citations… about its inhumane and illegal treatment of small pets at its 1685 Bryant Street and 1591 Sloat Boulevard locations,” said a press release on the website  San Francisco City Attorney, Dennis Herrera.

“Sick and dying animals in freezers,” and “reptiles and fish left dead in display tanks,” were some of the complaints.

About a year and a half later, in May of 2004 the case was settled out of court. Petco was ordered to pay the City of San Francisco $50,000. It also had to follow certain provisions for 18 months including: providing specialized training for employees, getting medical care for all sick or injured animals and getting animals reviewed by an independent veterinarian.

Rupert strikes.

The PETCO Check-In

On a Monday afternoon, I check in on Four Square at Petco, located at 1591 Sloat Blvd, one of the two locations notoriously known for being cited in the lawsuit against the chain pet store. It is in a shopping center, like most of them are. I walk through the automatic doors. My nose adjusts to the dog food smell. I go left, past tubs of dog biscuits. The reptile sign hangs, I see tanks full of goldfish, bright colored fish, but where are the reptiles?  I turn right and run into a turtle tank in the corner.

I imagine the Peta (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) video I watched a couple days ago. A woman, in the reptile black market video, throws turtle shells in a bag like they are aluminum cans, a 5 cent redemption per can.  She shows no regard for the life form inside the shell. Peta doesn’t promote keeping reptiles in captivity. They site the black market of reptiles, and a statistic that 90 percent of wild-caught reptiles are dead within the first year in captivity. At the end of the video an interview with a lizard rescue in Seattle, Nancy Lanning, closes saying, “There is no reason to have a reptile as a pet, period.”

These turtles look happy enough. They are out of their shell, looking around, inside and outside the waterfall pool. I look right, down the long aisle in front of the tank, and a young, dark-haired guy is cleaning the lizard enclosures. He is wearing khaki pants, brown VANS and a black polo with Petco embroidered on the right, and his nametag clipped on the left. His name is Kevin. But I prefer Petco Kev.

Rupert bites down on the feeder rat.

He pushes around one of those carts I see science professors push around, black, two-tiered with wheels. He sprays the glass and wipes it with a towel, then sprays some of the plants, changes water and food as he answers my questions.

“The water is de-chlorinated. I give them fresh water,” he says. “And I make sure each cage has the right humidity.” Some of the lizards are from tropical temperatures, while others are from desert heat. Different environmental control needed, indeed. I’d say the lizards look good, not a dead one in sight, so maybe that lawsuit worked.

Petco Kev says his favorite lizard is a Canadian Crested Gecko. The one he shows me crawls all over him. It’s about a half-foot long, bright orange with a white stripe down its back. The top of him is flat, which makes him special, the white stripe is like a rectangle down his back. Let’s call this orange guy Moe.

So to see if EBV John was right, I ask Petco Kev what would I need to take this crested gecko home. I am directed towards a free (gratis) care pamphlet. The front shows a picture of a creature that looks like Moe, but a drab yellow color. I am asked to check yes or no for five questions/ statements. They go something like this:  1) Do I have an appropriate location? 2) Can I meet temperature and nutrition requirements? 3) Can I commit to caring for Moe? 4) Do I understand the risk of salmonella transmission? 5) A mature person will provide responsible and primary care for this companion animal.

Rupert holds the bite on his prey.

I can only answer yes to two of the questions; I need five yes responses to take Moe home. I guess I’ll be sleeping alone tonight.

The inside of the pamphlet gives me detailed instructions on how to take care of a creature of Moe’s stature. And the back tells me what to look for in a healthy animal versus an unhealthy one.

Besides this, Petco Kev knows what he is talking about. He had to read six books on reptiles and pass a written test with a score of 90 percent to keep his job. He also works underneath a companion animal manager, who checks the animals regularly.

He led me to the starter kit I would need, if I were to take Moe home. It costs about $80. “I would also recommend a plastic tree,” he says. “They love to climb, and I think it’s just mean not to have a tree in there for them.”

Petco Kev also says that all the animals are from local breeders that the store works with. So maybe Peta doesn’t have to worry, either.

Rupert starts the process of getting his dinner down in one bite.

Willam, the Herpetology Student  (Herp Will)

Herp Will talked to me over the phone. He wouldn’t meet up with me after that despite numerous calls and a text message. I think he thought I was the reptile FBI, but I did get a 30-minute interview.

I found his number on Craigslist. He was selling a boa python.  EBV John doesn’t recommend first-time buyers buying from Craigslist. He called it a “crap-shoot,” and said. “There’s not enough information, and it’s hard to follow up on.”

Herp Will was actually using it as a last option for the snake he was rehabilitating. He prefers, a classified and informational website for reptiles.

William was another example of how people in the reptile industry are truly dedicated to their cause. Maybe it’s because there are limited lobbyist groups for reptiles, one being the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK). And well-organized groups such as Peta and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) hold the dominant voice of highlighting the negatives of the reptile industry, according to EBV John.

During my conversation with Herp Will he could not stress enough that all reptiles need a heat source of some kind, ranging between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Not to mention, a proper sized cage. Each reptile has different requirements.  “You can’t forget them for even a day or two,” he says. “You can’t slack.”

Rupert has his meal halfway down.

To his dismay he has seen some very sick reptiles. When he worked at a reptile shop a customer brought in a bearded dragon lizard. This species is known for being very social, and “almost loving,” towards people and other reptiles. The one presented to him looked lethargic and emaciated.

“I looked at it for seven seconds. I knew from that point on there was no saving it. I was shocked it was even alive.” Herp Will was so upset he wanted to cuss the customer out. “But we had to give the reptile back, and send them to the vet,” he said. “I had to be that way as a professional.”

But it is situations like these he is trying to help avoid, by helping to get reptiles adopted. He personally rescues and rehabilitates them.  When the animal is ready to get a home, Herp Will charges an adoption fee, based on the species, and tries to send the creature off with a proper cage and light. “If you want to learn about something you can take it far.”

He is constantly learning, through reading, to get the best education he can. “Read, read, read,” is his advice. He recommends “Reptiles for Dummies.”

 Some Dummy(s) Who Didn’t Read Enough (Is this too harsh? The reptiles don’t think so).

The latest reptile reptile story has made it seem like the boa python population has taken over in Florida. A report insinuates that the snakes are killing the bird population, and are a threat to the human population. An uneducated snake owner probably released the snakes into the wild, which often happens when proper education isn’t passed on, said EBV John.

Rupert is probably wondering why the mouse has such a big ass.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) conducted a study on nine snake species in Florida. Species included: yellow anacondas, Burmese pythons, Northern and Sothern African pythons and boa constrictors. The USGS claims the study is for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  and National Park Service to be “used to assist resource management agencies in developing management actions concerning the snakes when and where these species appear in the wild, “ according to the its website.

The report went on to say the snakes threaten the ecosystems and all species were considered high to medium risk because all grow to a large size, eat a variety of food, are tolerant of urbanization, and can be potential hosts of parasites and diseases, among other factors.

Another implication of the report is whether the pythons will threaten the mainland. EBV John retorts that what hasn’t been said is that the temperature in Florida has been freezing, and it has killed a lot of the boa population

For the same temperature reason, the snakes would not be able to make it cross-country. “99.9 percent of people will tell you that it’s not possible with that temperature,” Herp Will said. The lowest temperature pythons are Burmese, from Indonesia, and they live at 55 degrees at the coldest, he went on.

Just keep swallowing, keep swallowing.

EBV John worries about this kind of bad press because ultimately it leads to bad legislation. “We are an easy target to pick on.” He feels legislation is important because “people will do crazy things.” Some laws that have been passed include: No one can own a snake longer than six feet in San Francisco, and it is illegal to breed and keep venomous animals, as per Section 51 and 52 of San Francisco Health Code.  “But prohibition showed us that people are going to do what they want to do.”


Nick B.’s “Steve Erwin Experience”

Nick goes for bogey with the snake in tote.

And that is just what Nick Bennet did while he was golfing at the Callippe Preserve in Pleasanton on Good Friday. He was walking with his friend Scott, on the 12th hole green, looking for his ball. Low and behold, there was a brown snake next to the white golf ball. Nick B. picked up the four-foot snake, not knowing what kind it was. (Luckily, for everyone’s sake, it was a gopher snake, non-venomous).

Nick B., drunk and snake in hand, bogeyed the hole. “Now whether or not it was the smart thing to do… it definitely wasn’t, but I’d do it again. Maybe I’ll stop when I finally get bit.”

Well, let’s hope that never happens. No one likes to learn the hard way.

 A Real Snake Owner and Handler

Audio C, Christopher Rouge, is a 22-year-old student who studies sound engineering. He’s a little under six feet tall, medium stature with dirty-blonde hair, blue-green eyes and a nice smile.

He was happy to show me his pride and joy, four-foot long, ball python, Rupert. At first I was scared of Rupert, I mean, he eats rats. His tan base has brown branches that slither around in uneven formations on his body, creating a pattern of uneven circles with brown dots.

Rupert, I think you have something in your teeth.

When I held him, I felt a connection. He contracted his muscles around my arm to move up and explore my shoulder, while poking his tongue in and out to smell me. (Snakes smell with their tongues to get air particles, and bring them to the Jacobson’s organ, in the roof of their mouth, to identify scents).

Yes, his skin was cold and hard, but I felt that he liked me. It was the first time I felt a connection with a cold-blooded creature. That’s if you don’t count my last boyfriend, or Edward Cullen from the Twilight series.

Audio C bought Rupert at the East Bay Vivarium, where he still goes to buy Rupert’s weekly meal, a feeder pup rat.

“Everyone you talked to there could tell you something about snakes,” he said. “That place is awesome. Everyone is super friendly.”

We talked in his room among drab colored walls. His full-size bed covered with a black comforter, behind us, the door to the right, his computer desk to the left, and Rupert’s enclosure in front of us. Enough space so two people can stand comfortably, but definitely not three. His terrarium is in Audio C’s closet, between his shirts and toiletries, on top of his wooden dresser.

Yeah, you definitely need a toothpick.

His living environment has logs, hiding spaces, a cold and hot side, water bowl and wood chips. On my second visit Rupert had a pup feeder rat in there, too. Audio C let me tag along on the feeding adventure. I guess this is how reptiles are different from mammals. You don’t go to the store and buy a bag of kibble; you go to the store and buy a live rat.

Audio C said you can buy frozen rats, but then you have to keep them on frozen food forever. “I want to him have some fun. I want him to get some excitement.”

Audio C drove us in his White Suburu WRX. “Are you ready to ride?” he asks me.  He has one of those personalities that’s so relaxed that you get relaxed being around him. He wears jeans, brown worn down VANS with back shoe laces, and a black polo with red and white stripes.

He played Red Hot Chili Peppers as we cruised San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. One guy in front of Actual Café is wearing a crab hat. Audio C laughs in the middle of our conversation, and I’m like, “What is going on?” Oh, the crab hat. Yup, we’re in Berzerkeley.

We arrive at East Bay Vivarium, park in the backed up parking lot. It’s meant for two cars, ours is the fourth vehicle to get in. We walk up the long driveway, other people talk out front. What do you know? It’s “feed day,” again. So about half  the tanks underneath the front counter still have mice in them.

Is that your tongue or a tail? Either way you're being very rude right now.

A dark-haired man with a full beard helps us, wearing a yellow Berkeley shirt.  “Do you want biggish or smallish?” he asks about what size rat we want.

“Mediumish,” replies Audio C. Yellow Shirt Guy goes to a drawer behind the counter. The space behind the counter is the size of an average bathroom, so there is plenty of room for critters of all kinds.

He shows us a baby with its eyes closed, it has a grey patch around the eye. “A little bit bigger,” says Audio C. Yellow Shirt Guy puts the baby back, and heads to the back “feeding room.” I’ve been there before. Gulp.

“How’s this?” asks Yellow Shirt Guy. He is holding a rectangular, cardboard box a little bit bigger than an iPhone. Audio C looks inside. “Good.”

He pays $1.92 for Rupert’s meal, and we are back in the car, on our way to feed the pet, with a pet. I hold the box on the way. I can feel the warmth underneath the thin cardboard. The box closes on the top with a folded flap and a single piece of masking tape holds it shut. The side reads: Ace Item No. 51602, Qty: 10 pcs. Well, now it’s quantity one, one life to give.

Your neck looks so big. Have you been working out?

“I’ve done this so many times it doesn’t even effect me,” says Audio C. “We eat chicken, steaks and lamb. Why is it any different?”

I continue holding the box, trying not to get attached to the rat inside, but I can feel it moving around. I simply name it Rat. The little nails are tapping on the inside. After arriving back where we started, we go inside his house.

When Audio C tries to pull Rat out, he can barely get it. He pulls by the tail, and Rat retaliates to the back of the box.

Audio C is not having it. He grabs the tail and lifts it up to show me the white, furry, feeder rat.  “Glad it didn’t pee. It stinks when they do that.”

He plops Rat down into Rupert’s terrarium. It’s like donkey kong inside that enclosure. I feel the tension. I crouch down to get pictures. It’s like a game of snake and rat, like a fight inside the UFC Octagon. Audio C keeps doing the voice of Rupert. “Why are you watching me bro?” he mimics.

As soon as Rupert senses the heat of the rat he starts making moves, slithering around. Rat goes underneath a log in the middle. Rupert hides behind another log. He slithers over to his prey. Rat moves and before he can take five rat steps a “SQEAK!” is released.

Rupert bites down on his meal. A blood mark shows where Rupert bit.

Once Rat is dead Rupert must figure out how to eat the white furry thing whole. Yes, one bite. (Snakes can separate their jaw and open at 150 degrees, humans can only open to 45 degrees).

He tries a couple different positions. “Don’t eat it ass first, dumb ass,” says Audio C in the background. Rupert fulfills his owner’s wishes and eats his linner (late lunch, early dinner) head first. It takes about five minutes as he gets the four-inch mammal down his throat. The tail and feet stick out of his mouth at the end and you can see the body lump in his throat. His neck turns twice his normal size. (Elasticity of neck skin and muscles make this possible. Their saliva helps break down the prey and get it down the gullet).

“I can’t touch him for fiv days to let him digest,” says Audio C. “Otherwise he can throw it up, and I don’t want to clean that up.”

I thank Audio C for the experience and I go home. Stuck in traffic I feel gross because I was so engrossed in the feeding of Rupert. But I guess we all have to eat.

 Just Because They’re Not Furry

Reptiles obviously aren’t cuddly or soft, but they hold a huge space in the world’s ecosystem. In Flordia some say sankes are ruining the ecosystem in the Everglades. But in China and Africa, they are being removed to be sold in the Black Market, or eaten by natives.

“Any one of the introduced plants could have ruined the ecosystem, but it’s easier to get people up in arms about big snakes,“ says Scott Alexander, the president of the Bay Area Amphibian and Reptile Society (BARRS).

Out of a list of  25+ endangered turtles and tortoises , a report by the Turtle Conservation Coalition, about 50 percent of the 328 species were considered threatened, but ony about 25 percent of mammals under the same category. Six species species are from China, and four are from Madagascar.

“People care about tigers and pandas and snow leopards,  but if it’s creepy and crawly people don’t care that much.”

Kids in China are paid to go out and find turtles and tortoises and then get paid for finding them. Families also eat turtles for food, due to poverty, and the creatures are exploited for their medicinal purpouses. Turtle shell is ground up and drunk for kidney and liver purposes. And in these circumstances you usually want the biggest turtles, Scott says.

But the biggest turtles are the ones who are old enough to breed; it takes about 15 years for turtles and tortoises of China to get to a breeding age.

Scott is specifically working with Burmese Star and Radiated Tortoise , breeding endangered species in an effort to keep the species from extinction.

An obstacle he is coming across in saving the species is trying to get enough turtles to breed. Currently, there are international regulations on shipping reptiles, in an attempt to keep the Black Market trade down. “If a species is going extinct and it’s not being protected. you should be allowed to export it for breeding,” he argues. “The restriction on transporting for breeding is driving extinction.”

In order to have money to fight for his cause he works full-time. But when he didn’t have time to properly clean and take care of his animals he hired a woman off Craigslist to come over and help. That woman is now his wife, and together they have two dogs, 12 cats, and about 50 reptiles.

He is so dedicated to reptiles and helping the cause that two of five rooms in his house are dedicated to them. But he doesn’t call him self a pet owner. “I consider myself a breeder.”

BAARS is working on getting the public educated on these creatures by having “animal educators.” The society visits schools, holds open meetings and workshops. “Maybe one these kids will be our leaders in the future and make a difference.”

So Now What?

Basically, if you want to get a pet of any kind, breed, or species, do some research. Every animal needs special care. If you get a pit bull puppy, you need to plan on how much space, time and food you will need for it when it becomes an adult.

If you decide to get a ball python, then you need to feed it once a week, make sure it has proper lighting and shelter.

Both are years-long commitments, and neither species can speak for themselves. That is why these “reptile warriors” speak for them.





Everett Middle School is both a newcomer site for students who emigrate from Latin American countries, as well as an immersion school, teaching Spanish as early as kindergarten.


By Tamerra Griffin

After having spent a considerable and pleasurable amount of time in the Mission the past few months, I have been subject to a number of lessons; some were sweet and happily digested, while others were force-fed, bitter doses of the realities of public education and the lives of children growing up in gentrified and often underserved communities. I learned, for example, that buildings and people are a lot alike.  The exteriors are merely facades that have been carefully crafted to distract passerby from the secrets inside.

Such is the Mission Beacon Center, a beating heart inside the vast body of Everett Middle School on 450 Church Street.  Despite its location on the outskirts of the Mission, the school’s appearance still maintains the regal, Catholic-influenced architecture often associated with the district.  In fact, the only things that seem to be missing from its cathedral-esque ambiance are chartreuse-stained windows and a steeple atop its columned presence.  Surrounding it is the same cluster of modern apartments that attracted the influx of more affluent, Caucasian San Franciscans to the once Latino-dominant Mission beginning in the mid-90s (because who wouldn’t pay an extra $500 a month to live minutes away from the picturesque and hipster-infested Dolores Park or Bi-Rite Creamery?).

But this theme of sophisticated beauty is done away with inside the Beacon; the walls explode unapologetically with graffiti murals.  An inverted skateboarder fights a stylish breakdancer for attention above a window, and both are set against a background of inspirational quotes and powerful words like “unity” and “peace,” all of which have been painted by the students who call the Beacon a second home.

Middle schoolers, having been excused early from school on a thankfully short Friday, lounge on an L-shaped couch, limbs tangled and indistinguishable as they occasionally divert their eyes from “Harry Potter” to check cell phones for text messages.  A smattering slouch at archaic, heavy-backed desktop computers, where instead of getting a jumpstart on their weekend homework, they sneak onto Facebook and leap over obstacles in a computer game.

“Aye Carmen—el Facebook?” says program director Luis Chavez, the familiarity of Spanglish sweetening his otherwise admonishing tone.  The perpetrator, caught red-handed, giggles as she quickly exits the site.

Luis gives me a brief rundown of the program, which is accompanied by three endearing, tri-folded poster boards of projects past.  The Beacon, established in 1999, is a space for kids who might otherwise have nowhere else to go, he says.  Between the girls’ volleyball team and weekly cooking classes, the center aims to occupy its attendees between school letting out and the end of their parents’ double shifts at work, while enriching their learning environments, completely free of charge.

The Beacon’s flag football team practices on the concrete playground out back.  The boys’ rib cages expand as they playfully insult each other, their bare chests glistening with sweat, the onset of pectorals, and bravado.  They are coached by Brian, who walks like he was a star player in his high school days and attempts to control his thick, locked hair in a ponytail.

I look at these pre-teens—as they run down the field and receive passes, dance over a soccer ball, or clamor for another slice of honey ham—I can’t help but imagine how they’d be spending this after school time if they couldn’t hang out at the Beacon.  Duffel dime bags and Norteno-versus-Sureno replace tutoring and shirts-versus-skins in my head.  I am not so naïve to believe that the former life replaces the latter; I know that some of these students, simply products of their perilously underserved communities, must do both to survive.

Back inside, I am tackled by the scent of nail polish as it weighs down the study room with its pungent, acetone-heaviness. Sure enough, a group of girls sit off to the side, hunching over their outstretched fingers as they gently glide dripping brushes over their nails, bumping into chewed cuticles along the way.

“Don’t worry, the bad parts come off when you take a shower,” reassures one girl to her friend.  The second part of what she says, although unspoken, is loud enough to shake the entire neighborhood: if only it were that simple.

A People of History

            In the 1990s, the San Francisco Unified School District and community groups like the Beacon Steering Committee joined together to establish the San Francisco Beacon Initiative.  Aimed at providing adolescents aged 11-14 with the proper social skills needed to thrive in high school and at the university level (such as leadership, civic engagement, and efficient communication, all of which are difficult to teach in San Francisco’s highly populated middle schools, much less tailor to individual students’ needs), the Beacon Initiative implemented eight different programs throughout the city, from North Beach to Visitacion Valley.

These centers serve a dual purpose: being that they are situated in lower-income, working-class neighborhoods, the beacons act as safe havens for children, spaces where they can complete their homework (with assistance from tutors when necessary) and receive a balanced meal before heading home.  Sometimes, these things aren’t guaranteed elsewhere.

Two years into the Mission Beacon’s establishment, Dina, the recreational coordinator at the time, began to generate interest among a group of girls to play soccer.  What started as simple inter-organization pick-up games evolved into scrimmages again different after school programs in the area, like Horace Mann Middle School and the Columbia Park Boys and Girls Club.  Eventually, Everett and the Mission Beacon combined their efforts (and their funds) to establish “Owl Central,” a slight nod to the unintimidating school mascot.  Ruben Urbina, who oversees the soccer program now known as Girls Got Goals, noticed an influx of interested soccer players at tryouts.  Instead of cutting them, he decided to create a second team, both of which have made it to the playoffs this season.

“There was always a disparity between what was offered to boys versus girls,” Ruben tells me over the cackle of his district-regulated phone, “so it’s been great that we’ve had so much participation.”

Without question, these girls’ journeys transcend their win-loss record.  Their journeys are of maturity and team development and confidence and transporting on-the-field success to achievement classroom.  Their journey, like so many of adolescents their age, is one worth telling.

First Attempt Connection

Owl Central goalkeeper Jessica warms up with a combination passing drill. The Owls look to defend their two-time championship title this season.

I can only imagine the insult-coated utterances they shout about me, disguised in a sing- song-y, Central American Spanish they know I cannot understand.

“She plays in college?”

“She’s so short!”

“I didn’t know black girls played soccer…”

And who can blame them?  Here I am, presenting myself as an athlete—with a big, non-Spanish-speaking smile, just begging to be made fun of—who competes at one of the highest levels in the country, and nearly tripping over my own legs trying to chase the impossibly quick footwork of my opponent, who is at least seven years my junior.

The afternoon wind blows goosebumps and the possibility of a snowy night onto their bare legs, which emerge from hibernation under khaki pants and fitted jeans in the heat of competition.  Further down the playground, the football team executes a play, Nikes scuffling and screeching against the fading black surface.  The boundaries of our makeshift field at the Beacon are anchored by two sets of two large, electric lemon cones, our goals.  Novice skateboarders circle the organized sports like vultures, ready to devour a bored team member into their clan.  This is a typical Friday afternoon, where Everett students celebrate the completion of yet another hard-fought and unpraised week with an endorphin fix.

On my team are round-cheeked Carlos, sweating beneath his school-regulation, poly-blend white polo; Kevin, who stands a head and shoulder taller than I and sports a flashy pair of purple and florescent orange soccer shoes; and a passionate Hiner, whose faux hawk slices the icy February air as he races down the field, a relentless and blood-thirsty shark.  We fall to a four-goal deficit in the first 10 minutes, and our opponents swell with confidence at every blocked shot or successful fake out.  Our morale is low.  We make emotional mistakes which, in the case of my teammates, are often followed by their favorite expletives, “Puta!” and “Pinche!”

But as life and soccer demonstrate time and time again, all it takes is one goal, one forward step, to shift the current.  Carlos, reluctant to venture outside the comfortable boundaries of a goalkeeper’s zone, distributes the ball to Kevin, who paints the grassless field with colorful moves for his opponents.  He then sends it spinning towards me with impressive pace, a technique that normally takes years to perfect.  My path to the goal is blocked by Grachel, the only other girl on the field, who fearlessly, almost recklessly kicks at my ankles in an attempt to intercept the ball.  With a quick-footed cut, I slide past her in time to release the ball to a screaming Hiner, so anxious to score that he almost shanks the ball wide of the goal, missing a rare scoring opportunity.


Unable to contain my elation, I sprint toward Hiner, hands outstretched to receive his in a celebratory high-five.  He shows more facial restraint than I do, but excitement is evident beneath the surface of his bad-boy visage, a milky, iridescent pearl begging for exposure inside a rocky shell.

On the emotional descent from one victory, I receive another.  Grachel strides toward me, her lip ring twinkling seductively in the winter-white sun.  Her long, lean shape and confident gait suggest the field position of an attacker, but her tenacity likens her to a midfielder position.  It may be too soon to tell.

“How did you learn to play like that?” she asks, the slow tempo and soft volume of her question revealing the effort it takes to phrase it in English.  It’s more than a question, though.  It’s an extension of a delicate rope called Trust, and she’s holding it out to me between her fingers.

“I can teach you,” I respond.  And just like that, we are linked.


The following Friday, the Beacon kids seem fatigued and uninterested in collecting the pieces from last week’s game, instead entertaining themselves on a nearby bench.  Ten of them sit shoulder to shoulder, and the two anchors lean hard into the center as the ones in the middle emit uncontrollable giggles.  Ball in hand, my eyes frantically search theirs, desperately trying to make eye contact and initiate a game.  All attempts are fruitless.  Then, a green shirted figure emerges from the edge of my peripheral vision, and by the time I realize that it’s Jose Mejia, a fellow volunteer at the Beacon, he takes the role of one of the anchors and throws his weight into the pyramid.

This swift action causes the students to erupt with laughter, and the force exerted toward the middle of the bench pushes some of them forward.  After a few more moments of this—and there truly is something to be said about the beautiful simplicity required to entertain a child—Jose stands, collects the ball from me, and dribbles down the field, executing fancy tricks as he goes.  And as though are summoned by a soccer playing Pied Piper, one by one the kids roll out of the pyramid and follow him onto the field.  My envy of his seemingly effortless influence is overshadowed still by a sense of thankfulness.  He is my liaison, in more ways than one.

Upon first glance, Jose does not inspire poetic, earth-shattering metaphors or even a raised eyebrow.  He neither towers over crowds nor peers up at them, and secures the hem of his baggy jeans with rubber bands, tiny denim ponytails that hover above black Converse or slick Nikes.  The shape of his body suggests that he is bien cuidada, well cared for (which equates to being well fed in Latino culture), but it would be a grave mistake to assume that his heavyset physique makes him any less agile on the pitch.

He constantly reminds me of this throughout the day; Jose and I always play on opposing teams, and I have suffered on more than one occasion the sear of embarrassment as he fools me with the ball—hips leading one way while his feet go the other—and throws me off balance trying to defend him.  He plays with unapologetic arrogance, which is annoying and admirable.  For guys like him, pride is precious.

Not that he’s a “bad boy,” by any means.  The 17-year-old has been volunteering at the Beacon for almost two months and plans to attend the City College of San Francisco this fall, although still unsure of his major.  Despite the angry-looking exterior that young men of his age have been conditioned to wear, Jose is thankfully not immune to smiling.  But at his still-ripening age, he is armed with an ego that opposes authority.  With a smirk and a bit of a wince, he raises a fist to my eyes, displaying the crusting cranberry scabs left over from a couple of weeks ago when he drunkenly punched a concrete wall during a fight at a club to which he wasn’t even old enough to be admitted.

“My uncle’s the bouncer there,” is all he offers as justification.

At the Beacon, however, Jose’s demeanor hints at not even a trace of negativity or violence.  Sure, he moans at having to chop tomatoes for the kids’ salad during cooking class and is occasionally scolded by Brian for playing on his phone while on the job, but he also spends upwards of 12 hours each week working at this program for free.  In that context, a handful of secretly-sent text messages seems arbitrary.

Jose—who also goes by “Biggie,” but only in the presence of one of the Beacon kids whose actual name is Tupac—aspires to play for the men’s soccer team at CCSF.  He didn’t play in high school because he “got into too much trouble,” although his skills prove that he can certainly compete at that level.  His curiosity about collegiate soccer draws down his tough-guy façade like a moat, and he asks me questions like How often do you practice? and Shit, you have to run how much? or my favorite, They don’t teach you moves like that at State, do they?

He adds taco sauce to garlic bread and ranch dressing to ravioli to give them more flavor.  He peppers his language with the same Spanish slang—A huevo!—as the kids he looks after, and he coats his words with a sugary flirtiness for every female he encounters.  He is such an accurate reflection not only of his Mission roots, but of the Beacon itself: tough on the outside, and necessarily so, when deep down all he wants is someone to lean on.

Owl Central: the Cinderella Team

Everett’s cafeteria is plastered with bright slabs of butcher paper advertising various campus events, annoyingly enthusiastic healthy eating posters, and leftover crepe paper twisted festively in honor of the most recent dance.  On one side of the airy room, members of the football team face the stage, where a motivational speaker commands their attention with grandiose gestures and an urban drawl.  Across the way, the young ladies of the Girls Got Goals soccer program sit quietly at circular foldout tables, pouring over history books.  As part of the program, the girls must endure an hour and a half of homework sessions and empowering workshops each Tuesday and Wednesday before they can touch the ball at practice.

As they print swirly script on college ruled paper, head coach Guillermo Gonzalez looks over them, his soft brown eyes combating a large and lumbering body to prove his gentleness.  Gonzalez, a senior at Mission High School down the street, enters his second year coaching at the Beacon, and hopes to defend the two-time championship title with the girls this season.  He speaks with an endearing lisp and never raises his voice above a café whisper, even when one of the players confesses that she has forgotten her practice shorts.  His easygoing manner is no doubt tied to an inescapable empathy; before becoming a coach, Guillermo was himself a Beacon kid.

He tells me this as we wait for the girls to change into their athletic clothes outside the locker room.  The first to emerge, covered in an oversized white t-shirt, navy blue sweatpants, and thick black eyeliner (applied with remarkable precision for a pre-teen) is Carla.  She regards me, a foreigner, with a scrutinizing but not completely dismissive gaze.  As she saunters up to Guillermo and takes a seat beside him, she says, “Somebody just tried to jump one of the girls outside campus.”  The evenness of her tone suggests that occurrences like these aren’t rare, a speculation that solidifies with Guillermo’s subtle reaction—raised eyebrows followed by an exasperated sigh.  And then, one by one, the Owl Central squad flies out of the locker room, indoor soccer shoes thudding lightly on the concrete.

Once the congregation is head-counted, we all make our way to the indoor gym on the second floor of the school.  Backpacks are discarded on the wall beyond the sideline, and ponytails are tightened.  Jose Guevara, another high school coach, tells Carla to put her phone away.  She walks over to her backpack, unzips it, and mimics the motion of throwing something into it, while actually leaving her text messaging capabilities and her rebellion in her pocket.  Fully aware that I’ve witnessed her stealthy move, she raises a finger to her lips as a mischievous grin breaks across it.  And instantly, the secret is sealed, just in time for practice.

Jose’s demeanor is a nice balance to Guillermo’s.  The former isn’t afraid to shout, which is apparent as he leads the girls’ warm-up. It’s an aerobic sequence of stretches, lunges, and laps around the court, and by the time it’s over, tiny beads of sweat dot the girls’ hairlines.  They refuse to remove their earrings before practice, causing their gold hoops to swing like shiny pendulums against their necks as they run, keeping time with the minutes of their cherished youthful experience.  Outside these walls, environments and obstacles more complex than their maturity levels await them, but for the next hour, they simply play.

Jose focuses on Jessica, the goalkeeper, while the rest of the team works on stationary passing.  In one drill, she faces the wall of the gym, and when Jose yells “Go!” she jumps and turns to face him with just enough time to save a ball he kicks at her.  Her eyes narrow as she tunes into her twitch muscles, sharpening her reflexes.  Jose is equally quick in praising her good saves and criticizing her weaker moments, switching fluidly between Spanish and English all the while.  The chemistry in the room—not just between keeper and coach, but on the entire team—is positive and light, which no doubt has become a foundation in the team’s success.

The practice ends with a much-anticipated full court scrimmage.  The team splits in half, and one group stretches green mesh “pennies” over their heads to distinguish them from their opponents.  At the sound of the whistle, the girls thunder down the court, shouting for the ball over their own stampede.  The mini-squads are evenly matched; each has its fair share of intricate combination plays and narrowly missed goals.  And unlike most young teams, on which teammates typically respond to criticism with immediate retorts and long-lasting resentment, these girls know that whenever they dig into each other, it’s coupled with compassion and a genuine desire for their improvement.

The Owl's first team poses after defeating Columbia Park Boys and Girls Club 5-1 on Thursday, April 28.

“These are my best friends.  We’re all really supportive of each other,” says Lesley Gonzalez, an 8th grader and second-year Beacon player, after practice.  “Playing here has really helped with my social skills.  I talk to people more.”

The game ends with a narrow victory to the green team—the victorious scorer swings her pseudo jersey around her head like a brown-skinned Brandi Chastain—and Jose goes over the logistics of the Owls’ game tomorrow afternoon.

Then they stretch (which is code, as any young athlete knows, for socialize) and head back to the locker rooms to morph back into non-soccer selves.  The pendulums have swung their final warnings, and as they exit the Beacon and disperse like a firework across the neighborhood to different homes, pieces of their identity are laid to rest for the evening.  Now they become adults.

Fault Lines

The double doors of Everett’s second-floor gymnasium stand tall and locked today.  I look through a sliver of Plexiglas, trying to find a pair of eyes inside who will help me enter (this search, as I have discovered in my weeks spent here, is both metaphorical and constant).  I find one, a fellow volunteer in a floppy hat named Donnie, who kicks down the handle of the door with such force that the BOOM reverberates throughout the stairwell and momentarily blocks out the sound of thunder fooling around with torrential rain outside.

When inclement weather strikes the Mission Beacon Center, a rainy day schedule is set in motion.  Indoor basketball replaces outdoor football, the cheer team practices in the auditorium instead of on the blacktop, and small-sided soccer matches shrink to occupy a smaller space inside the gym.  There’s a school-wide dance in the cafeteria, which is why the basketball court is so desolate.  A sprinkling of Vans-clad boys kick a ball around, causing the nets of the makeshift goals to cascade in ripples every time they score.  On the opposite side of the room, Donnie shoots hoops with a seventh-grader named Joaquin, who dribbles the ball with controlled hands and shakes shaggy mane out of his eyes before each layup.

Between these two activities, Hiner—one of my soccer buddies, who recognizes me with excited eyes but admits he can’t remember my name—and a spritely boy named Alexander take turns hitting a birdie across the center court to Cordell, a soft-spoken 12-year-old who neglects to change out of his school-sanctioned white polo into a more stylish tee like the other kids have.  New kid on the block that I am, I inch closer to the game, silently asking for permission to play along.  Within minutes, I’m gripping the worn foam handle of a tennis racket and the last shreds of my athletic dignity as I attempt to engage my hand-eye coordination.

As I swat aimlessly at the plastic shuttlecock, I think to myself, this is one of the beautiful things about this school, this program.  Hiner is Mexican-American, Alexander is of Pacific Islander descent, and Cordell is African-American.  But in this small game in this stuffy room, color is irrelevant.  They are united solely by their interests, resistant to the prejudicial lenses of their respective societies.

And just like the volatile weather outside—which phases from angry, sheeted downpour to sunshine poking through wispy clouds—the climate shifts suddenly.

The dance has ended, and a clan of students to pour into the gym.  As if they’ve rehearsed from a script, a handful of boys rush to the basketball court, discarding backpacks and hooded sweatshirts as they run so that by the time they are beneath the hoops, they are prepared to battle.  Joaquin’s bewilderment is palpable; he is now the only non-black kid on the basketball side of the gym.  The others shout for the ball as they glide toward the net, executing the same effortless layup that Joaquin, according to Donnie, had been practicing for hours before.  Intimidation sets in as Joaquin fades from the arc of the three-point line to the sideline, where he sits and watches an entirely different game unfold.

 Similarly, Hiner’s line of vision begins to stray from badminton to the soccer game—which, from the sound of it, is picking up in its intensity—happening over my shoulder.  After a few more sympathy hits, he hands me his racket and heads over to the far side of the court adding with bland reassurance that I can “play with two racquets against the other two.”  Alexander and Cordell escape soon after, claiming the need for a water break that apparently lasts the duration of the afternoon.  I take a seat and look at the incredible transformation that has taken place.

To my left, black boys swat and yelp for the ball, occasionally acrobatting themselves up above the rim to retrieve a ball that’s been wedged between the hoop and backboard.

To my right, Latino boys chase down a skidding soccer ball, flat-soled sneakers screeching across the wooden floor of the gym and marking it with black streaks.  Minutes later, as if to solidify this segregation, Donnie emerges from the equipment closet with a stack of traffic orange cones—a most ironic warning if I’d ever seen one—and places them in a line across the court, separating the games and, essentially, the students playing them.  This division, so subtle that I’m unsure if the kids are even aware of it, seems so fluid and natural.  Despite Everett’s demographics—57.3 percent Latino, 23.5 percent African American, 3.5 percent Filipino—evidence of same-race magnetization is still alarmingly prevalent.

The Baby Project

Springtime means sneezing through pollen-infested sunshine, swapping puffy parkas for shapelier zip-up sweaters, and the tedium of standardized testing.  The silver lining in the STAR test, however, is that teachers are usually too drained from exam proctoring, healthy snack distributing, and No. 2 pencil sharpening to follow through on their own lesson plans, which means no homework for the Owls.  For this reason, Owl Central is restless in the cafeteria during their normally designated pre-practice study time.  Lesley fixates on the note card-sized screen of an iTouch as she navigates her way through what sounds like a perilously high level in an application game.

“What are these bitches so afraid of?!” she shouts into the fantasy world, but immediately her brown eyes widen at me as one hand flies up to cover her mouth.  She has just released a forbidden expletive by Beacon rules.

I offer her a reassuring smile in return.  Today I am not an authority, merely an observer.

As the girls shake the crumby remains of a white cheddar Pop chips bag into their manicured hands, Guillermo and Jose announce that they will be moving from the lunch room to a classroom for the remainder of study hall for a “special program” for which males are not allowed to attend.

“But if you guys act up, we will know about it,” adds Jose with as much sternness as a high school senior can muster.  Slowly, reluctantly, the girls shuffle down the hall.

Inside, an older woman clad in a pink Rocawear top waits patiently for the team to take their seats at the long rows of tables.  She introduces herself as Lynn from the Mission Girls program, which essentially offers the same services as the Beacon—academic assistance, emotional empowerment, cooking classes, arts and crafts—but focuses on gender-specific groups.  As Lynn raises her voice above the low hum of whispering voices — Lesley is still poking and prodding away at her iPod game — she makes it clear that this is a space for the girls to freely express themselves, to discuss things going on within the community with the assurance that whatever they say will remain confidential.

It’s abundantly clear that by “things going on within the community,” Lynn alludes to the number of shootings — which police have since tied to gang violence between San Francisco’s Surenos and the Nortenos — that have dominated the Mission’s streets within the past two months.  As she offers this vague phrase, a conversational lure into a potentially moving discussion, the girls avert their eyes and remain silent.  Either the topic is still too sensitive, or the promise of confidentiality is too questionable, too risky to believe right now.

Not to be deterred, Lynn initiates a standard ice breaker.  The girls take turns going around the room to introduce themselves, tell their age, their favorite food.  Between Carla and Grachel and Angelica and Calvana and Hilda and Lesley and Alina and Edith and being 11 and 12 and 13 and 13-and-three-quarters (as Alina concludes after counting on her fingers) and 14 years old, they are united by their collective appreciation for Mexican food.

Pacing the front of the classroom, gelled ponytail slick and shiny beneath unforgiving fluorescent lights, Lynn lists some upcoming events at Mission Girls, hoping to incite some enthusiasm.

“On Fridays we have free pizza and movie nights…”

Carla quickly pipes up by asking, “How much does it cost?” a question that is either a testament to her not fully listening, or the importance of price, no matter how small, in every activity she might pursue.

Lynn reiterates, with an admirable air of patience, that the event is free.  Then she describes an activity that sparks an unexpected uproar among the team: the Baby Project.

With the intent of providing girls with a physical glimpse of life as a teenage and expecting mother, the Baby Project equips them with either a mechanical baby programmed to cry multiple times throughout the day, or an occasionally-kicking “belly” to wear strapped to their own tiny abdomens, a backwards backpack in every sense of the word.

As Lynn explains the intricacies of the project (from its weekend-long duration to the fact that she can tell how long the baby cries by a computer chip, “So don’t think you can just stuff it in your closet at night when it goes off,” she says amid an eruption of guilty giggles), the girls are as quiet and engaged as they’ve been all afternoon.  Lesley even takes a break from level-hopping in her video game to ask, “But what if we have a soccer game?  I can’t play with that big ol’ belly,” to which everybody in the room chimes in with variations of “Yeah!” and “I know, right!”

Little do these owls know, though, that every pass they make on the field, every time they slip a black and yellow jersey on, they compete not only against their physical opponent — like Horace Mann at 4 p.m. tomorrow — but the squad of statistics lined up against them as well.

As Latino and African American youth living in low-income communities in California, they are significantly more likely than most to be overweight or obese.  They don’t realize it now, but by playing soccer they greatly reduce their likelihood of illegal drug use, smoking cigarettes, and having unprotected sex.

But it’s not obligatory that they understand this right now.  Right now, they need only worry themselves over hair clips and remembering their indoor soccer cleats and walking home from school in the buddy system.  Right now, the only sounds they need to be concerned with are referee whistles and laughter, not ambulance sirens and teething babies.  Right now, they are young minds yearning for the comfort of routine, for solidarity.  And if they can find it here, in this oblong-shaped classroom headed by Lynn from Mission Girls, then so be it.

Excitement for the Baby Project continues to rise the following week, when Lynn enters the classroom toting one of the dolls in question—all brown skin and round cheeks—along with a vest meant to stimulate a pregnant belly.  The girls hastily scribble down required information on their permission slip forms and waste no time in clamoring for a chance to pass around the special guest.

“He’s so cute!” they croon as they bounce the blue-clad baby (whom they collectively decide is named Junior) on their still-developing hips.  Rather than tiny red organs, the interior of this simulation child is a small black box that randomly initiates crying and whimpering.  When this happens, Lucely Chel, a short 8th grader with a thick, floppy ponytail, offers up her index finger to Junior’s toothless and unmoving mouth, exactly as any knowledgeable caretaker would to a real baby.

Amidst the hullabaloo, Jessica and Magaly, both volunteer coaches who attend City College of San Francisco, exchange knowing glances in the corner of the boisterous classroom.

“They’re all happy about it now, but after a few hours of crying and realizing they have to take it to school with them, they’re gonna change their minds real quick,” says Jessica with a smirk to a nodding Magaly.

It goes unsaid, but the coaches know that these kinds of lessons are necessary; educational investments to prevent the possibility a future market crash.

Suddenly, Alina (the official team clown) wonders aloud, “I wonder what his wee-wee looks like,” much to the comedic appreciation of her comrades.  Lesley the Brave takes the bait, carefully removing Junior’s diaper.  Everybody scoots their chairs in around her, craning their necks to witness firsthand the impending sight.

After the anticipation has reached an acceptable high, Lesley pulls down the front flap of the diaper to reveal the last thing anyone expects.  Barely discernable over the explosion of squeals and laughter, Alina shouts, “This is not a boy!!”  They all look to Lynn for an explanation, who finds their confusion amusing.  “Sometimes the clothes get mixed up,” is all she says.

Junior never receives a more female-normative name after the shocking genital discovery, but the girls continue to pass him around, marveling at the realness of his weight, the delicate connection between head and body on a weak neck, the natural inward curvature of his chubby legs and precious feet.  The tenderness with which they handle him suggests experience, either with a younger sibling or other close family member.

But in spite of their fascination, the girls still grasp the true meaning of the exercise.  At one point, Edith turns to tell me about an experience she had recently at church.

“This other girl was doing the Baby Project, and she had to leave because it wouldn’t stop crying,” she says, her signature black hair bow bouncing along with her animated narrative.  “Everybody was staring at her.  She told us never to do this; she hated it.”

Overhearing this, Carla nods her head in solemn sympathy.  And then, as if snapping them out of a drowsy hypnotic trance, Jessica points out the time: 4:45.  Practice.

In one fell swoop, the team gathers their duffel bags, slaps their permission slips on the table in front of Lynn, steals one last glance at “Junior” (and for some, a handful of the complimentary Flamin’ Hot Cheetos) and rushes out the door to change into their soccer gear.  I am both astonished and amused at their malleable attention spans, and can only hope for their sake that they continue to leave pregnancy at the wayside in favor of athletics for a long, long time.

Vince Bordi attacks Angelo Henry during their 205 lb. fight at “Dragon House 5” on March 15. Bordi won by first round knockout. (Courtesy of: Vince Bordi)

By Robert Cartagena

Inside Zhong Luo’s Dragon House, students’ faces are red from pain. They have just completed some intense submission drills and now take a moment to catch their breath. You can smell the sweat throughout the gym. Sifu Luo, the founder and head instructor, instructs them to compete in a couple of five minute rounds of sparring. He sets his electronic clock for the first round. “Ready?” The students, men ages 18 and up, break into pairs and exchange handshakes. “You got five minutes. Fight to a tap out!” The clock beeps. Immediately, the students grapple each other, looking to gain the upper hand by earning the first takedown. Some quickly go to the ground during the struggle. Others execute tackles and rollovers.

Despite the frenzied pace, Luo calmly kneels as he observes each pair. Right when one student thinks he has the advantage, his opponent quickly turns it around. The battle continues. Another student grabs his opponent’s leg
and slams him to the mat. A sharp “THUD!” echoes throughout the gym. As the round comes to a close, the sense of urgency becomes apparent. “You got eight seconds. Tap out quick!” Each student executes one last takedown. The round ends.

The Dragon House may look like a traditional martial arts school with calligraphy  inscribed on the slightly faded white walls and traditional martial arts weapons displayed in the window. But the training is a whole different story. The students who train there take it very serious. There’s no fooling around inside. “I’m just pretty much the person to monitor off-training, monitor every fighter and make sure they progress, and make sure they don’t be lazy. I’ll call them if they don’t show up for a week – that’s it,” says Luo, who has been practicing martial arts since age five.

From the time each class begins to the time it ends, the students bleed and sweat, transforming themselves into future fighting machines. Various thuds can be heard when a person is taken down or bodyslammed on the mat. Students use the support beams that black heavy bags hang from to perform pull-ups and chin-ups. Even the music played during classes contributes a little bit to the training. If you’re expecting to hear Justin Bieber music, you’re in the wrong place. All you’re going to hear is “fight music,” mostly rap songs that get the fighters’ adrenaline pumping.

Welcome to the world of mixed martial arts. This popular full contact sport has taken the world by storm. Now, it is taking over the Bay Area. The Dragon House is one of few gyms offering San Francisco residents the opportunity to transform themselves into the next Anderson Silva or Georges St. Pierre.

“Nowadays, it’s hard to find a gym that has every aspect in the MMA game. We have it all,” Luo says. “The old school martial arts practitioners stick with the same style – that’s the only style they have taught – and sometimes, it’s hard to survive. People like to have more choices when they walk into a martial arts gym.”

Other local gyms offering MMA classes include World Team USA, Ralph Gracie jiu-jitsu, Fight and Fitness, Bushido Fight Team and Gym 445. In fact, Fight and Fitness co-owner Chris Cariaso recently competed in his UFC debut on Jan. 11 at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. He defeated Will Campuzano via unanimous decision. All three judges scored the bout 29-28. Cariaso will face Michael McDonald at “UFC 130” in Las Vegas on May 28.

K-One Fitness, located at 2001 Van Ness Ave., offers fitness boot camps to help people get into shape. Along with the opportunity to learn boxing, Muay Thai and MMA, the four week program offers nutritional guidance and even how-to’s on selecting the right equipment to maximize training. The most recent boot camp began on May 2 and runs until May 27.

“You can train like a fighter does for four weeks, and get all the health benefits and endurance benefits and the skill benefits you’d get by training like a Muay Thai fighter or a (boxer) for four weeks. You get all that without actually stepping into the ring and competing,” Xavier Macay, a K-One instructor, states on the gym’s website.

Mark Tabuso, the head Muay Thai and kickboxing coach at Freestyle Submission Academy Fight Team, considers the Bay Area a “mecca” for MMA because of the local fighters who are making a name for themselves in the sport. “All of our students here – all these students in every other gym – have an opportunity within a rock’s throwaway to train with one of the top 10 fighters in the world, or at least, one of (their) students,” he says.

Mark Tabuso trains with a young kickboxing student at the FSA Fight Team gym.

One of the most notable fighters to emerge from the Bay Area is Jake Shields, who fights out of San Francisco. Originally born in Mountain Ranch, Calif., he is a former Strikeforce middleweight champion, the first – and last – Elite Xtreme Combat welterweight champion and winner of the 2006 Rumble on the Rock tournament in Honolulu. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt went on a 15-fight winning streak before losing a unanimous decision to Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder St. Pierre at “UFC 129” on April 30. Despite losing, his stiff jabs and right crosses did damage to St. Pierre’s left eye, causing it to almost swell shut. Shields, who received a wrestling scholarship to San Francisco State University in the summer of 2001, was also head instructor of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA at the Fairtex-Gracie affiliate in San Francisco from March 2002 to April 2008. He refers to his fighting style as “American jiu-jitsu,” a combination of his jiu-jitsu skills and the grapples and takedowns of MMA.

MMA is a combination of various martial arts, including Muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and kickboxing. It originated during the Greco-Roman era as Pankration, an Olympic sport that combined boxing and wrestling. It is believed that Greek gods Heracles and Theseus invented the sport because of their frequent use of such skills during confrontations. Spartan soldiers were taught the ancient technique to solely fight on the battlefield. They were forbidden to compete in boxing competitions. Throughout the late 1880s, wrestlers competed in no-holds-barred tournaments and challenges throughout Europe. In the United States, the inaugural boxer-wrestler showdown was between then-heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan and his trainer, Greco-Roman wrestling champion William Muldoon.

MMA ultimately came into fruition in 1993 when the UFC was introduced. Art Davie proposed the idea of an eight-man, single-elimination tournament billed as “War of the Worlds,” which was televised on Nov. 12, 1993. Produced by WOW Promotions and the Sephamore Entertainment Group, the tournament featured kickboxers Patrick Smith and Kevin Rosier and shoot fighter and future World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler Ken Shamrock. Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Royce Gracie won the inaugural tournament. Since then, the UFC has become the most popular form of televised MMA, hosting up to 129 UFC Pay Per View events. “UFC 66,” which featured the 2006 rematch between then-light heavyweight champion Chuck Lidell and former champ Tito Ortiz, generated 1,050,000 buys, which helped the sport reach a new level of popularity. It was also considered the biggest selling UFC event at that time.

“It’s exciting. It’s everything that a sport should be,” Tabuso says. “For American audiences, it’s a bloodshed – I’m not going to lie. It’s fun to watch people beat each other up.” But he also believes there’s more to the sport than just the ground and pound. What he and his students respect about the sport is how dynamic it is and how each fighter has a puncher’s chance.

“There’s so many different things that you’re looking for. That’s what makes it so great. You could have some guy that says he’s a Muay Thai practitioner and the first thing he does is take try to take the next guy down. That’s pretty awesome to me,” he says.

Today’s MMA bouts are reminiscent of battles from the gladiator days. Two men step inside an eight-sided cage known as “The Octagon.” They stare across at one another, eager to be released from their corners. The referee lets them rumble. From there, they have five minutes per round to prove why they will be the last man standing inside that cage. It’s survival of the fittest. Non-title fights lasts three rounds while championship fights last five. A fighter can secure victory by knockout, submission, decision, disqualification or forfeit. Fouls include headbutting, eye gouging, hair pulling, biting, attacking the groin and striking the back of the head and spinal area.

When the UFC originated, it was no-holds-barred – literally. There were no set regulations, time limits or judges. Senator John McCain was appalled by such violent nature and launched a campaign to ban the UFC in all 50 states. He referred to the sport as “human cockfighting.” In response, the organization began reforming itself with “UFC 12,” which introduced weight classes. Gloves became mandatory at “UFC 14” and fighters were prohibited from kicking an opponent’s head while they were on the ground. On Nov. 17, 2000, “UFC 28” was the first UFC event to be sanctioned by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board under the newly formed “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.” UFC President Dana White is responsible for transforming the organization into the cash cow it is today.

“People like to think of it as like, ‘Oh, it’s a bloody, barbaric thing.’ But he’s made it into a sport – a real sport” says Vince Bordi, 23, who trains at World Team USA. “They have doctors on sight (and) everybody goes through pre-physicals. It’s very organized – it’s humane. If a guy’s getting beat up real bad, the ref’s going to stop it.”

As an amateur, Bordi is 5-0. He recently competed at the “Dragon House 5″ amateur event at Kezar Pavilion on March 15. He stares across at his opponent, Angelo Henry. Bordi, dressed in a red shirt and black shorts, bounces on his feet. He eagerly waits to hear the bell. Henry, an African American fighter, is wearing a blue shirt and black shorts. The bell sounds. Both men come out of their respective corners. They touch gloves as a sign of sportsmanship. Henry immediately begins jabbing with his right. Bordi constantly guards with his left hand. He soon lands a quick right shin kick. Bordi immediately shoots for the legs, but Henry briefly grounds him. Both men rise together, trapped in a clinch. Henry powers out, throwing Bordi to the other side of the cage. Like a lion, he pounces on Bordi and lands some punches. The crowd gets excited. “OOOHHH!” The pace gets frenzied. Both men exchange punches. Bordi misses a looping right hand. He is slammed on the mat for his troubles. “THUD!” The crowd gets even more excited. They’re ready to see the ground and pound. Bordi, however, breaks free.

“Once he took me down, he didn’t want to mess with me on the ground. He wanted to keep (the fight) standing. So, I was like, ‘Well, he’s uncomfortable being on the ground. I’m just going to take him down,'” says Bordi, a kinesiology major at SF State.

Vince Bordi finishes off Angelo Henry during the first round of their 205 lb. bout at “Dragon House 5.” (Courtesy of: Vince Bordi)

Bordi shoots for the legs again, forcing Henry against the cage. Henry’s back is trapped against the cold steel. He tries to break free, but Bordi drives him to the ground. He lands body shots. Henry attempts to wrap his leg around Bordi’s, but Bordi starts pounding the head. Henry is lying face down, on the receiving end of punches. The crowd applauds the action. They sense that a knockout is inevitable. Henry refuses to surrender. Bordi lands two sharp rights to the head. A ringside observer yells “Left hand! Left hand! Left hand!” Henry weathers the storm. The bell rings. Both fighters return to their corners. Bordi is flowing with confidence. A doctor steps into the cage to check on Henry. He believes Henry has suffered a concussion and declares him unable continue. Bordi earns the first round knockout.

The fight against Henry was almost jeopardized a month earlier when Bordi tore his hamstring. Competing in the California Collegiates Open at SF State on Feb. 5, Bordi faces tough competition from Cal State Bakersfield’s Zach Merrill. He thinks he can easily wrestle Merrill to the ground, but Merrill constantly escapes Bordi’s grip. “So, I was like, ‘Alright. I’m going to jerk him real quick,” Bordi says. He throws his left leg over, but soon after, Merrill sits out. His move traps Bordi’s right leg. As Merrill jerks forward, he forces Bordi to do the splits, where he immediately feels his hamstring tear.

Vince Bordi tore his hamstring during a wrestling competition at SF State on Feb. 5. (Courtesy of: Vince Bordi)

In order to keep the blood flowing, Bordi walked a lot during his first two weeks of rehabilitation, which made the healing process faster. He also ate healthier, particularly many servings of protein. Throughout his rehab, all he could think about was the fight on March 15.

“I had the thought going through my head that I really wanted to fight on this card. I hadn’t fought since November and I was like, ‘Man, if I don’t fight in March, then I’m not going to be able to (fight until after graduation),’” he says. Because of such passion to fight, he refused to ice his injury, which some people thought was a little crazy. But in the end, Bordi returned to the gym two weeks later to prepare for the Henry fight.

At the FSA gym, Tabuso is preparing for his nightly Muay Thai class. Dressed in red workout shorts and a black Muay Thai shirt with gold fighters emblazoned, he engages in a quick shadowboxing session. With some sweat visible on his face, he quickly moves from side to side on the blue training mats. He visualizes his opponent. He throws quick left-right punch combinations and finishes them with roundhouse kicks. “Wah, wah, wah,” he grunts with each combination. The gym may not look like an MMA gym because it’s been relocated to a business park in South San Francisco. On the outside, it resembles a garage; dumbbells and other training equipment are scattered on the floor. But inside, the students work up a sweat.

Tabuso prepares his students for three-minute shadowboxing sessions. He sets the clock for the first round. “Always put an opponent in front of you.” The round begins. Each fighter moves around the mat, visualizing their opponent. They don’t all throw the same strike. Some execute quick feints before throwing a strong knee. Others throw shin kicks. Inside the gym’s ring, Geovanny Aguilar is working up a sweat. Aguilar, FSA’s wrestling coach, is dressed in a white long sleeve shirt and red shorts. With short, black curly hair, he mixes his strikes up. “Hah, hah, hah!” he grunts with every strike he throws. He throws quick punches and kicks. He then moves to the side and throws another combination. He quickly evades an attack and throws some more strikes. Tabuso acknowledges his work rate. “Good! Good!” The clock beeps.

Tabuso encourages his fighters to go 30 more seconds. “One more, one more! Let’s go!” Despite some fatigue, they continue to attack. They each throw a final strike. The clock beeps again. Tabuso wants them to go an extra 35 seconds. “One more! Let’s sweat!” They push hard to finish the round. Some grunt a little louder to help them fight through the pain. “HAH, HAH, HAH!” The clock beeps once more.

A Muay Thai practitioner himself, Tabuso learned about the importance of grinding it out – continuing to fight hard no matter what obstacle may be thrown your way. As head instructor, he hopes to instill that same value into his students. “You’re going to get knocked down – literally and figuratively. You’re going to get hurt. You may have good days, you may have bad days. But it’s about how many times you get up – that’s what I want,” he says.

The fighters have less than 30 seconds to catch their breath. Tabuso resets the clock. Round two begins. This time, he watches the action from the center of the mat with his hands on his hips. Aguilar continues to work up a sweat inside the ring. Boxing gloves, hand mitts and pads surround the outside. He follows up his punches with knees. Knees are one of the most common techniques in Muay Thai, which originated in Thailand. The combat sport is referred to as the “Art of Eight Limbs” because unlike traditional boxing, Muay Thai makes use of punches, kicks, knees and elbows.

As with the previous round, Tabuso urges his fighters to go 30 extra seconds. “Let’s go, let’s work!” They soon hear that familiar beep.

Cynthia Tamura (olive shirt) waits for instruction from head coach Mark Tabuso during the nightly kickboxing session at FSA Fight Team.

Despite its popularity, the UFC has not signed a single female fighter since it originated almost 18 years ago. Hoping to compete professionally in MMA, Cynthia Tamura wants to be a role model to any aspiring mixed martial artist – especially women. She bows before she steps onto the blue mat inside the FSA gym. Wearing an olive green “LOVE” shirt and black shorts, she works up a sweat shadowboxing. She visualizes an opponent in front of her, quickly sidestepping. She throws two left jabs and a right uppercut. Seconds later, she throws a lunging front kick. She likes to mix her attacks.

Tamura considers herself one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. But when she steps on to a mat or into a ring, her game face is on. She remains focused and throws each strike with determination. She can even catch you off guard with strikes. Teammates such as Tabuso and John Kusaba encourage her to be at her best every day. She can’t see herself training at any other gym. She bleeds FSA.

“When you go out there, you’re a team. You have to totally trust that your life’s in their hands and you have to believe that they care and that you have to trust each other,” she says.

The shy 26-year-old kickboxing and Muay Thai practitioner lacked confidence early on in her life. But the UFC sparked an interest in mixed martial arts. From there, she began training at FSA. Today, she is a completely different person; she’s disciplined, stronger and most importantly, self-confident. Though you wouldn’t suspect it, Tamura, who is of Mexican and Salvadorian descent, was born to fight.

Cynthia Tamura shadowboxes during her workout at FSA Fight Team gym.

“It was definitely a whole new chapter in my life once I started. It’s a lot of fun. It takes a lot of dedication, but it’s a totally different sport. It’s an individual sport, but you’re still a team in there,” she says.

Meanwhile, organizations like Strikeforce have showcased some of the best female talent, including American Muay Thai practitioner Gina Carano and Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos. In fact, Carano and Santos competed in the most significant female fight so far. Televised by Showtime on August 15, 2009, the event garnered 856,000 viewers and marked the first time that two women headlined a major MMA event. Santos won via technical
knockout with a second left in the first round.

“(Women) can’t give as much – bottom line – as our male counterparts. It’s just the reality. So, I don’t think it ever will blow up as much, but I think there’s room for us to kind of (succeed). It’s hard to find the perfect package of what people want, especially in a girl fighter, because you can’t have it all,” Tamura says.

As was the case with Bordi, injuries are common in MMA. During one fight, Tabuso was swept to the ground by his opponent. He tried to break the fall but slipped, and his shoulder popped out of the socket. He popped it back in, but every time he used it, it slipped out. He eventually finished the fight. He rehabilitated his injury and continued competing. However, his shoulder continued popping out of the socket. After a few more therapy sessions, he began contemplating retirement because of a passion for coaching. He also considered the wear and tear that was induced on his body from previous fights. In fact, before his shoulder slipped out of the socket, he had noticed how loose his shoulders were. Following a competition in Bangkok, he decided it was time to hang up the gloves.

“I said, ‘Let me rethink this, because these guys are getting awesome. These new competitors are just pretty awesome.’ So, I decided, ‘You know what? I want to start coaching. I want to coach a lot more,’” he says.

Since joining head founder Mike Fazzino in opening FSA, Tabuso loves what he does. But he does feel pressure to bring the best out of his students and take them to the edge in terms of discovering their strengths and weaknesses.

“I have the burden of them looking up to me and figuring out the answers of not only the fight game, but also of their life. That’s the headache, that’s the worry – that I have to leave the gym and worry about what my students are thinking and how they’re living, because we become a family,” he says.

Mark Tabuso applauds Daniella Nieva (right) as she works on her kicks with Cynthia Tamura.

As class concludes for the night, Tabuso congratulates his students on a hard workout. He knows if they ever decide to step inside a ring or cage, they’ll be ready – physically and mentally. He takes a step outside the gym and enjoys some fresh air. The future is looking bright for FSA Fight Team.

“Somebody from right here is going to come off the street and be somebody, where maybe they didn’t think that they were going to be anybody a minute ago,” Tabuso says.

Daniella Nieva kicks “the suitcase” training bag during the kickboxing session at FSA Fight Team gym.

April 29, 1830: Adolph Sutro is born in Aachen, Prussia.

1845: Texas is annexed to the United States from Mexico.

1846-48: The Mexican-American War breaks out following Texas’ annexation.

1848-49: The German Revolution breaks out, and bleeds over into roughly 50 other European states.

1849: The California Gold Rush begins

Fall 1850: The Sutro family arrives at Ellis Island.

November 21, 1851: Adolph Sutro arrives in San Francisco.

1859: The Comstock Lode is tapped for its rich silver deposits.

1861-65: The American Civil War breaks out, leading to a complete reconstruction of the country.  Americans begin to identify themselves as “Americans” after this conflict.

1870s: Denis Kearny begins organizing the California Workingman’s Party, an early precursor to the labor conflicts in San Francisco during the early decades of the twentieth century.

1872: Self-anointed Emperor Norton I, Guardian of Mexico is priced out of the rice market and begins issuing a wave of public decrees, among the most prominent of which is a plan to build a bridge across the San Francisco bay, from east to west, connecting San Francisco with its rapidly growing neighbors in the East Bay.

October 1878: Sutro Tunnel is completed, providing ventilation and allowing for miners to continue tapping the Comstock Lode unimpeded.

1879: Andrew Hallidie successfully tests the first rail and chain-bound cable car, allowing for residential construction to begin on the city’s steepest vistas.

1883: Adolph Sutro purchases the Cliff House restaurant and lounge, but is unsuccessful in its management.  He sells the establishment to independent proprietor J.M. Wilkins.

1894: The schooner Parallel, packed with high-yield explosives, slams into the rocks below the Cliff House, closing it for significant repair.

1898: Adolph Sutro dies after a long battle with illness.

1899-1901: The Boxer Rebellion drives thousands Chinese from China, many of which settle in San Francisco.  The large influx of Chinese leads some to denounce their labor as the city was experiencing its most dramatic growth to date, arguing that it was taking jobs from white, American, laborers.

April 18, 1906: San Francisco is struck by an earthquake of roughly magnitude 7.9, which, while doing little initial structural damage to the city, ruptures gas lines leading to the massive conflagration that all but levels San Francisco.  The Cliff House largely survives the disaster.

1907: A kitchen fire burns the Cliff House to its foundation.  It is again rebuilt, and placed under new ownership.  The Cliff House suffers a number of successive fatal blows before being constructed into its current form during the 1970s, after the deconstruction of Playland.

1914-1918: World War I erupts in Europe.  The United States enters the war in 1917.  The war all but halts any planning of bridges across the San Francisco Bay until the early twenties.  During the intervening years, combustion technology is greatly improved upon, allowing the construction of massive battleships and aircraft.  Because of the size of the ships, the Navy opposes the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Project.



Adolph Sutro’s patent of the pneumatic drill catapulted him into the ranks of the great silver and rail barons that made up the roots of San Francisco’s wealthy elite.  He was mayor, business proprietor of the Cliff House, and thorn in the side of those condemning the rapidly spreading labor movements through the city.  At the time of his death, he was among the richest and well known figures in civic history, leaving a legacy of invention, metropolitan innovation, and substantial real estate and railroad holdings.  Not to mention a name that has become synonymous with the San Francisco Bay Area.

Sutro was born on April 29, 1830 in Aachen, Prussia, to a middle-class family living on the sanctified hunting grounds of past royalty.  The elder Sutro owned a textile plant in which his sons worked.  At 16, Adolph left school to take up a management position with his father, who shortly thereafter died, leaving the task of running the plant to Adolph and his brother.

It’s arguable if the decision to leave school to go to work was something regrettable for Adolph.  Later in life, he retained his fervent bibliophilic tendencies, building a massive library, which is today preserved in various forms along with much of his notes and letters, in libraries and universities scattered across the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s likely that the Sutro children would have been forced from school anyway when the German revolutions of 1848 broke out.  While the Sutro family was by no means struggling, the war that would likely have taken the kids from school took the factory, and much of the family’s holdings.  The war was one of the most destructive conflicts since the French Revolution, and was among the last cavalry wars.  The first introductions of live ammunition and automation in warfare, and the brutality, destruction and medical advances that comes along with that, was also seen in the American Civil War less than two decades later.

It was thus that the Widow Sutro made the decision to relocate the family of eleven children to the United States.  In the fall of 1850, the Sutros arrived on the eastern seaboard.  At the time, Gold Fever had permeated eastward from California, and Adolph Sutro, by then a ripe 20 years old, hitched a ride to San Francisco on the first clipper ship to leave port.  During the months-long trip, Sutro kept detailed records of events, weather and sights, largely preserved in letters home.

One biographer casts November 21, 1851 as the date Adolph Sutro finally reached San Francisco.  By this time, the Gold Rush had ended, stranding many of those who flooded in expecting to strike it rich.  So many, in fact, that the City of San Francisco, feeling some growing pains, sank many of the derelict ships moored in the harbors and built over them, creating more space on ground that was fairly unstable.

Over the next several years, Sutro was married and had six children.  Busy with life as a father and husband, Sutro was jolted in 1859 when the discovery of the Comstock Lode was made in Nevada.  Adolph Sutro’s scientific mind was set into motion, and he began to tinker.

Sutro’s Drill

Miners were coming, and dying, in droves at the Lode.  Most suffocated in the dank, deep mine tunnel, some fell victim to their machines, others succumbed to disease.  The need to ventilate the thousands-of-feet deep and baking hot tunnels was readily apparent.  Sutro, who the San Francisco Alta saw imbued with the “audacity of a dreamer,” had the idea to develop not only a method of ventilation but a way of extending the shaft, which was decried as “an unfeasible plan.”  Regardless, Sutro continued to develop methods to dig deep into the rocky soils of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

The 6-mile Sutro Tunnel that connected, drained and ventilated the Comstock Lode was completed in October 1878, using Adolph Sutro’s newly patented pneumatic drill (or jackhammer) technology after 14 years of labor at a total cost of $6.5 million.  His primitive precursor to the modern jackhammer ultimately netted his mining organizations multiple millions.

With the problems at the Comstock Lode all but solved, Adoph Sutro took a modest $5 million stipend from his corporation in Nevada, and relinquished the rest.  With it, he returned to San Francisco, where progressive labor movements were just beginning to heat up as thousands of failed miners were returning to the port city in search of work.  There, he made large investments in real estate plots across the city.

Bridging the Bay

It was a few years before, in 1872, when the self-anointed Emperor Norton I, Guardian of Mexico, strolled through the clatter of streetcars down Market Street issuing a public decree that the San Francisco Bay was to be bridged west to east, at roughly the bay’s widest and deepest zone to connect the isolated peninsula to the rapidly expanding East Bay.

San Francisco was poised to grow, especially after the discovery of the silver contained within the Comstock Lode under what became Virginia City, Nevada sent thousands rushing for riches into California to set down roots and again attempt to strike it rich between 1859 and 1874, causing the population of San Francisco to skyrocket.  More miners were successful this time, as the Lode’s value was estimated at over twice that of the strikes found during the 1849 Gold Rush.

Manning the Project

San Francisco has a history as California’s haven for the laborer and bastion of radicalized politics since its inception, partially around a Catholic mission that among other things, spread a very powerful idea.  By 1933 or 35, when final planning for major bridge construction was getting underway, the city was jam-packed with the statically unemployed and frustrated longshoremen.  What better place than this city—whose people and structure were still reeling from the quake and conflagration of 1906—to initiate some of the world’s most historically ambitious feats of engineering?

They were on a roll by the Depression, too.  San Francisco had conquered its own natural barriers to expansion after Andrew Hallidie figured out in 1879 how to hoist rail cars bound to underground chains up some of the city’s steepest hills, allowing for the development of homes for the silver and rail barons that had made the port their home after making it rich in Nevada.  The city had expanded into its new territories created by landfill in the bay, and new homes were beginning to spring up, even past the old western border of Divisadero Street.

Prior to that, similar methods of dredging up shipping lanes in the sea were employed to make a more navigable Golden Gate.  These same methods would again be employed, to some degree, in the dredging of the sea to create foundations into which to drive the bridges.

San Francisco’s legion of unemployed, plus a proportionately small contingent of laborers that could be contracted below minimum wage, were ripe to be put to work constructing these bridges and thoroughfares that not only connect regions of the city, but also the city to the greater peninsula and Bay Area.

They went to work creating the Golden Gate Bridge, which as representative of the pinnacle of the two-tower suspension bridge seems of the perfect construct and color for the space it spans.  It seems to fit perfectly at the mouth of the bay.

At the time, a two-tower suspension bridge was the only possibility, as any more or less would greatly affect the structural integrity.  The length of the Golden Gate Bridge happens to be just about the maximum length that it could be constructed at the time without having to add a third tower.  Hence, the bridge wasn’t built past the steep hills through which the Waldo Tunnel was drilled.  It was also because of this two-tower stipulation that the Western Span of the Bay Bridge had to be comprised of two joined suspension spans.

Opposite that, eastward, was the considerably more ambitious Bay Bridge project.  The battleship grey World War I throwback shined so brightly in its early years that pilots learning to fly the newest Boeing 247 model—which was to become the first plane that could actually ferry multiple passengers over a distance—had to be warned about the new bridge’s argent reflection.

The Bay Bridge’s construction was delayed for over a decade from when plans were first devised, and for all kinds of reasons.  It’s no easy task figuring out how to join two suspension bridges to one of the world’s longest, and curved, cantilever bridges at a junction that is comprised of two roads that bore through rock as the worlds widest-bore tunnel at such a long length.  Despite the seemingly insurmountable task of bridging the San Francisco Bay in these two main locations, plus a handful of fringe locations, the task was set in motion.

Among other engineering marvels of the era, Sutro’s mechanized deep-drilling technology was imperative in the construction of both bridges, and numerous tunnels boring through many of the region’s numerous steep hills, including the Yerba Buena Tunnel at Treasure Island, which connects the three portions of the Bay Bridge, and is to date the largest diameter transportation tunnel in the world.

The U.S. Navy stonewalled the project until it was settled that there would be a suspension portion so that their battleships could still squeeze through and get to the Alameda Shipyards.  Hence, the double-suspension design of the Western Span, which crosses the San Francisco Bay at one of its deepest points.

Labor’s Representation

The majority of the legion of laborers on the bridge project, finding themselves in need of a voice, helped to start San Francisco’s massive labor movements during the late nineteenth century.

One such organizer, Denis Kearney, who quartered substantial support for his cause by denouncing Chinese, or “coolie” labor, alleging that it took jobs from whites and persisting as a perpetual thorn in the side of big railroads around the turn of the twentieth century.  He became a local leader, and with eccentricity characteristic to some of the others thrust into the public sphere in San Francisco.

Kearny’s popular rhetoric was enflamed as thousands of Chinese immigrated to San Francisco after the Boxer Rebellion erupted in China in 1899.  He was representative of just one of the many opinions of labor advocates of the era, many of whom, like Kearney, acted against those in need of as much labor as possible to engage the building projects that were almost constantly being initiated around the turn of the twentieth century in San Francisco.

There is a Kearny Street that runs directly through the center of today’s Old Chinatown, but it isn’t named for Denis Kearney, but rather for Stephen W. Kearny, who served as an officer during the Mexican-American War.

After his tenure in leadership with the Workingman’s Party (not to be confused with the Socialist Workingmen’s Party), Kearney opened up a coffee and doughnut shop at Ocean Beach, a figurative stone’s throw from Adolph Sutro’s personal residence and the Cliff House.  His café was catapulted onto the map after it was underscored as a hotbed of fiery political rhetoric characteristic to Kearney’s street corner rallies.

Eventually, the property was seized by federal authorities and demolished by officers of the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department who came over to the impromptu marketplace at the foot of Balboa Street with hacksaws and crowbars at the ready.

There, in the shadow of Sutro’s estate, Kearny made his final speech, decrying the capitalist establishment as his was torn apart—ironically, standing on one of the many sand dunes, which at the time, was under the ownership of the Sutro family’s big railroad holdings.  The region had been zoned for more residential zones following 1906, not commerce.

The Cliff House and Barbary Coast 

Decades after the idea was first floated, the bridges and highways were completed, just as the gold and silver had exhausted itself years before.  The work had dried up, but the workers remained.  The Barbary Coast had long held the reputation of a locale of ill repute, and it continued to fill well though the Prohibition era.

Merchants and longshoremen, artists, writers, apprentices, masters, prostitutes, foreigners, locals, tourists, hiders, seekers, lawmen, bankers, lawyers, educators (not teachers), pirates, bums, alcoholics and drug addicts all wandered the Barbary Coast, in and out of the pubs and alleys.  Port cities have a way of attracting such bulldozed characters; those who aren’t planning a long stay and maybe have some coin to blow.

Adolph Sutro’s rail line, which ran along Land’s End between his estate at the Cliff House out to the ports and Marina was just another way for the Barbary Coast crowd to come out for a coastside retreat.  These, mostly blue-collar folks, were coincidentally the prime audience for the hot fresh rhetoric being served up at Denis Kearney’s doughnut shop.

Adolph Sutro purchased the Cliff House in 1883, and was largely unsuccessful in its management.  He then leased it to a local liquor company, then independent investor J.M. Wilkins, who Sutro hoped could drive-out the Barbary ruffians and bring back families local to the burgeoning Park Presidio District.

Despite the best efforts of Wilkins, the Cliff House was severely damaged when the schooner Parallel, loaded to bear with high-yield explosives, was run aground in the rocks below and closed for repairs.  Then, just as the beleaguered retreat was repaired and reopened, it was completely destroyed by a chimney fire on Christmas Day, 1894.

In 1896, two years before his death, Adolph Sutro rebuilt the Cliff House.  His elegant chateau-style design with eight floors and multiple venues for dining, dancing and entertaining cost $75 thousand to build and became an icon of San Francisco.  Though it barely survived the 1906 earthquake and fires, the Cliff House again burned to its foundation in 1907, in less than two hours.

The Mayor & His Legacy


As he was rebuilding his Cliff House, Adolph Sutro was also simultaneously trying to figure out how to shield his bathhouse from the waves of the Pacific and man the helm of the City of San Francisco as the city’s 24th, and first Jewish, mayor.  His commitment to his city by funneling his vast fortune into centers of leisure and open space such as the Cliff House and Land’s End, Playland at the Beach and Golden Gate Park made him a natural candidate for mayor.

For a while, the Outside Lands to the far west of Divisadero Street was their land.  The rail magnates, silver barons and other shining representatives of San Francisco’s upper class could hide away among the dunes.  As time went on, America became involved in two world wars, again bringing San Francisco into the national spotlight as the central naval port on the western seaboard.  It was a minor staging ground during the First World War, and a major Allied port during the second.

In the 1940s, the spread of population into the Outside Lands increased dramatically.  With people returning from war or internment, and military personnel seeking lodging after the closure of the Presidio as a base of operation after World War II, new neighborhoods and thoroughfares were rapidly congealing across the western dunes.

His name is nearly synonymous with San Francisco.  If the man who figured out how to ventilate one of the biggest natural resource strikes in American history, making it accessible to miners, then there might not be any City of San Francisco. Instead, perhaps a sleepy port town that never quite recovered from its characteristic, physical isolation.

His property nestled in Clarendon Heights at Mount Parnassus, renamed Mount Sutro, is now closed to the public and home to the largest structure in the San Francisco Bay Area, the 981-ft. broadcast antenna that carries the late mayor’s name.  Sutro Tower has been drilled into the mountain such that roughly two-thirds of its structure is buried within the mountain, so that the tower would be stable, even in an earthquake.  With the tower in place, broadcast signals of all types are no longer hindered by San Francisco’s discursive geography.  It also serves a dual purpose in that residents and visitors can navigate the city just by locating the tower presiding somewhere on the city’s skyline and using it like a compass.

The mayor’s main residence overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Point Lobos is today a popular respite location for residents.  The trees that Sutro planted at Land’s End to block the region’s often unforgiving gales still remain, as does a giant concrete slab that was once the foundation of his home.  The standpipes are still there, as is the residence’s lower shed.  Children ride their bikes around the property’s forward driveway, and their parents lounge on shady benches overlooking the Pacific.  The city of San Francisco still maintains the various species of flora planted by Sutro, many of which are not native to the region.


The property’s lower gardens serve as lodging for a few of San Francisco’s legion of homeless, with garbage and chunks of building material often scattered across the ground and cigarette butts, beer bottles and Burger King wrappers in the still-filled pond.

Regardless, these dunes are Sutro’s dunes.  In 2009-10, volunteers worked to restore a 3.3 acre parcel on Balboa Street at the Great Highway, directly below Adolph Sutro’s main residential plot, dubbing it Sutro Dunes.

See a timeline of Sutro’s San Francisco

This is a story about life and death and love. Peter Hass and Bill Goggins both had generous and loving hearts that stopped beating way too early. And it is about running, the thrill, the addiction, the risk. And, in a way, it is about me, because I am a runner.


Peter Hass. Photo from buest book on

Peter Hass died on February 6, 2011, 36 year old, in Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon. Photo from guest book on

Bill Goggins.

Bill Goggins died in San Francisco Marathon July 2006, 43 years old. Photo from

I was sitting in my kitchen. Sunbeams pierced the windows and were absorbed in the oak table in front of me. It was unusually hot for the beginning of February. A headline in The San Francisco Chronicle caught my eye. The story was about a 36-year old father from Orinda who had dropped dead on the finish line in a half marathon the day before. I am a runner myself, and the story stuck. It started to form questions. Why do apparently healthy runners drop dead just like that? I would later learn that this story repeats itself a thousand times every year in the US.

Three weeks later I meet 34-year old D’Andre Lopez at Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Fremont near San Francisco. A white bear is printed on his shirt. His body is strong and short, shaped in his youth as a wrestler. Now the wrestler is running instead. Three weeks ago he saw a man die.

The wrestler woke up at 4.30 a.m. February 6 2011 and had breakfast. The sun was starting to come up a little, and the sky was purple, as he climbed out of the car. The air was mild and he took off one layer of clothes.

Kickstart My Heart was the first song on the wrestler’s playlist. The guitar of the Modley Crüe song went wrooooooommmmm.

One thousand american runners drop dead every year - during exercise or races. Photo from US Half Marathon 2011, San Francisco, by: Per Skovkjær Sand

One thousand american runners drop dead every year in the US - during exercise or races. Photo from US Half Marathon 2011, San Francisco, by: Per Skovkjær Sand

The crowd looked like a parade of running shoes and hats. Somewhere 36-year old Peter Hass was preparing for the race, too. His wife, Eden, and their two year old son, Gavin, were at home. Peter Hass’ favorite phrase was “today is the best day of my life”. And indeed Peter Hass’ had good reasons to be happy. In Eden’s belly the little heart of his unborn child was beating.

Twenty-one year old Carly Bliss was preparing for the race too. Unlike the wrestler, she had no music in her ears. She did not want Rihanna to distance her from the experience of running a half marathon for the first time. She looked at the other runners chatting at the starting line. Some were running in groups. Adrenalin burst through her veins when the race started. Her anxiousness had become excitement.

The 10,000 runners shuffled their feet. The wrestler was in the back and had thousands of people in front of him. On one of the first hills he caught a glimpse of them. They looked like an army of ants.

Peter Hass most likely was one of the ants running in front of the wrestler. He had been a runner for a long time, and he had trained at least six weeks for this race. He met his wife, Eden, at the University of California Berkeley, where he studied Environmental Science. A friend from the youth recalls how much of a team Peter Hass and Eden were as a couple. They both appeared to be very much in love. Peter Hass loved dogs, and before graduating he and Eden had started their own business. They sold pet toys, and it turned into a big company. You would often find Peter Hass in the kitchen preparing a meal, and he would greet his friends with a smile and a pat on the back.

Carly Bliss had the feeling of mentally blacking out. She would run for miles not thinking of anything. It was just like fishing, standing on the river for hours, not producing anything, not hearing anything. She had a mysterious and cool feeling of being connected to all the people around her.

A refreshing breeze from the Pacific Ocean ran through the wrestler’s hair. At mile eight he started thinking of his legs. He had forgotten the salt packages that should prevent him from cramping. Around mile 11 he felt twitches in his leg.

Carly Bliss could not believe that it was so hot in the beginning of February. She felt like she was in the warm Santa Ana winds of Southern California. She ran faster and faster. Maybe Peter Hass was behind her all the time, or maybe she passed him by somewhere.  Actually their finishing times are so close that it is hard to determine whether Peter Hass finished right before Carly Bliss, without her noticing it, or right after her.

Carly Bliss at the place in Golden Gate Park where Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon ended. Photo: Per Skovkjær Sand

Carly Bliss at the place in Golden Gate Park where Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon ended and Peter Hass collapsed at the finish line. Photo: Per Skovkjær Sand

She turned around the corner to the finish line. 1 hour 59 minutes and 30 seconds the clock said. “Gogogogogo” yelled the man on the microphone. Another girl was running next to her. They started sprinting, and at 1 hour 59 minutes and 59 seconds she finished. She threw her hands in the air and entered a scene, where the happiness of the unknowing was about to encounter the horror of a man dying. She felt happy and lonely at the same time. Everybody was embracing, runners were tackled by friends and family, saying “Im so proud of you” and “You did so good.” Some were crying. She had no one there to embrace.

Peter Hass crossed the finish line and collapsed face down. Someone rolled him over, and he had gashes on his forehead and was foaming at the mouth. Other runners gave him CPR.

Hobbling, the wrestler saw a man in front of him. The man was 60, maybe 70 years old. A competitive fire started to burn deep inside the wrestler, where there has been a defiant flame since that day in high school when he lost a wrestling match by two points to a guy whom he should have beaten. His coach was yelling at him in the bus, and he wanted to quit wrestling. But the next morning he put his wrestling clothes in the backpack and went to practice, where he was met by the trainer saying: “Don’t put your foot here until you’ve got something to prove.”

At the next tournament the wrestler was beating everybody. The trainer’s words are still printed deep inside the wrestler’s mind, and on the last mile of the half marathon they gave him that extra fuel to the fire he needed in order to beat the old guy. His calf cramped right at the moment he hit the finish line. But the cramps stopped immediately when he saw a pair of white running shoes pointing to the air.

“I’ve got the defibrillator, I’ve got the defibrillator,” a man in a yellow jacket yelled. “Get out of the way.” Other runners were kneeling on the asphalt beneath Peter Hass. The man on the microphone urged people to keep on moving on the narrow road. A woman ran so close by Peter Hass that she saw the blood in his face. Maybe he had a head injury, she thought, wondering why he was not moved away from the finish line.

As Carly Bliss walked slowly home on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, she saw firetrucks and ambulances coming in the opposite direction. Across the street from where she lives, there is a pastel yellow house with white frames around the windows and around the carport. In the carport there is a pastel yellow car. And next to that car, Carly Bliss’ neighbor usually sits watching the world passing bye on 25th Avenue.

There he sat this morning waving to her. She pointed to the beeper that had measured her time at the race. The neighbor gave her a thumbs up. Finally somebody knew what she had done. She wanted the whole world to know. She did not know that one of her fellow runners was dying until she talked to a friend that night. She pictured everyone around him going “ohhh” as they saw him fall. She thought about who was taking care of him.

The wrestler looked at the faces of the spectators at the finish line. Some people where covering their mouths with their hands. They had seen what he just saw. He felt that something was wrong. The scary thing was that it was almost as if nothing had happened. You would only know if you looked at that exact spot where two runners kneeled over Peter Hass and two white running shoes pointed hopelessly to the air. Peter Hass’ heart had stopped beating.

The coroner’s report has not come out yet, but he probably died from cardiac arrest, R. J. Waldsmith tells me two months later.

Waldsmith is the attorney for Peter Hass’ family. Friends and family to Peter Hass have forwarded my emails to the attorney. His job is to find some answers.

A story told a thousand times

Dr. Paul D. Thomson. Photo from Heartford Hospital.

Dr. Paul D. Thomson. Photo from Heartford Hospital.

For several decades Dr. Paul D. Thompson has tried to find the answers to why runners drop dead. Thompson has completed the last 11 Boston Marathons. In 1976 he finished 16th in it. He is also a professor and director of the Division of Cardiology at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. He has researched hearts since he ran the Bay To Breakers in San Francisco in the end of the 1970s. A runner died in this run, which is a 12K. At that time, Thompson was a fellow at Stanford University and together with one of his colleagues he started to gather information about sudden death during exercise.

Since then, he has published more than 200 scientific articles on topics that include effects of exercise, heart diseases and sudden death during exercise. In 1992 and 1993, he commented on the NYC Marathon while running it himself. He knows running from high above and from inside the very heart of it.

Thompson’s studies show that one in 15,000 previously healthy runners drop dead per year. Sixteen million americans went for a run 100 times or more in 2009, according to the most recent statistics from Running USA, a non-profit organization for the running industry. When you divide 16 million American runners by 15,000, you realize that more than 1000 U.S. runners drop dead each year.

Sudden Cardiac Death or SCD is the definition for what we usually just know as people dying from heart attacks. The phenomenon is also referred to as a “cardiac event.”

“In any race in any distance there are people who drop dead. Most of them are cardiac events,” Thompson says.

More and more women run half marathons. In 58 percent of the half marathon finishers in 2010 were women. In 2004 the number was 49 percent.

Women are taking over half marathons. 58 percent of the american half marathon finishers in 2010 were women. In 2004 the number was 49 percent. Source: Running USA. Photo: Per Skovkjær Sand

Cardiac Arrest is another term to describe what is going on in the heart when it is not able to pump blood around the body anymore. Sudden Cardiac Arrest can cause Sudden Cardiac Death.

Different things lead to cardiac arrest. When it happens to young people under 30 it is usually because of an inherited problem in the heart. But when we grow older cholesterol builds up in the arteries, Thompson explains.

“You can have cholesterol in the arteries in a very young age. Each case is different, but I have seen people at 35 drop dead from cholesterol in their arteries,” he says.

Thompson describes the arteries as rubber hoses. If a rubber hose lays in the sun, it becomes hard. The same thing happens to arteries if there is cholesterol in them. If you try to bend that rubber hose, it will crack and start leaking. That will form a blood clot, which gives you a blockage and causes a heart attack.

The problem is that it happens very quickly. There is no sign of danger until the rubber hose cracks, and then it might be too late. Thompson uses another picture to illustrate, what happens: Imagine that the blood cells are cars driving along a highway. If they knew that there was going to be construction ahead, they would take a detour in to the city. They would use what is called a collateral artery to get to the heart. But the blood cells do not know because the rubber hose cracks suddenly.

“It happens very quickly before the heart can adapt and make bypasses,” Thompson says.

That somehow explains how runners are able to run perfectly fine for the whole race, without feeling that anything should be wrong, and then suddenly drop dead at the finish line. Actually that is often the case.

“There seem to be an inappropriate high number of (cardiac) events at the finish lines. If you look at deaths during marathons a lot of them occur at the finish line,” Thompson says. ” That may be because people push themselves especially hard in the last period of the race.”

This last power output might cause the rubber hose to crack. Another reason for the many deaths at the finish line could be the fact that you stop running. Then the big leg muscles stop squeezing blood back toward the heart, and all the blood pools in the legs. But the exact answer is yet to be found.

Thompson says, “There is an increased risk of cardiac arrest at the finish line, but nobody knows why.”

Cynical in Sweden

I am a runner myself, and I remember last year climbing the hills of Gothenburg in Sweden in a half marathon. It was the second largest half marathon in the world in 2010. The Swedish online newspaper Epoch Times reported that it was the warmest day of the year so far. 80,4 Fahrenheit.

We were running at the harbor. I was in one of the last groups of the 38,459 runners who finished the race. When I left the starting gate runners were finishing at the same time. We were one sweaty snake of muscles and hearts contracting and pumping to push us forward, forward, forward. I felt good, I had music in my ears, and I got into the rhythm. I tried to run as smooth and easy as possible, not pushing the fibers too much. I followed a white line on the pavement, I crossed other runners, I enjoyed the music. But then my iPod froze. I tried to restart it, but it was impossible, I slowed down pushing all the buttons. It was dead. Pixels no longer responding to my command. All I had was my breath, the sound of hundreds of people moving, and the rhythm of my heart beating. Tack-tack, tack-tack.

There was water every half kilometer, and every time I took some and poured it over my head and my shirt, and it kept me cool for some time. I ran zig-zag between people pushing myself. Forward, forward.

The longer I run the more cynical I become. The instincts are taking over I guess. I recklessly overtake people on the inside or wherever there is a free space.

I looked desperately for the kilometer signs all the time, looked at my watch, tried to follow a very athletic looking man in front of me. On the pavement there were sponges that people had thrown away after using them to get water in their faces. I turned left. Now the road went up. I looked for the kilometer signs again. There were so many people – almost claustrophobic. Suddenly my family was there cheering at the side of the road among the sounds of others cheering. I speeded up for some meters but had to slow down again. My thoughts were hunting me. Why am I doing this? I tried to convince my legs to move on step by step. Now I knew the area. Just one kilometer to go.

I ran up the last hill in the burning sun and got in to the last part before the stadium, where I had seen a guy from Kenya finishing in 1 hour 1 minute and 10 seconds hours ago as the winner. I had been out there for little more than one and a half hours.

Finally I crossed the finish line, I got a medal, a banana and a chocolate cookie. It stuck in my dry throat, and it was worth four months of training in the coldest winter in years.

Sixty-three runners were hospitalized that day, the Swedish online newspaper reported. Two of them were in a critical condition. They were both men between 35 and 40 years old – just like Peter Hass. They stayed at the hospital for a day before they went home.

But why do we push ourselves so badly that we might loose everything? Why do we provoke our weaknesses so much that it might cause a blood clot and leave our heart like a frozen pixel on an iPod?

“Running for life”

It is Sunday morning 10 a.m. in San Francisco. Exactly three weeks after Peter Hass died in Golden Gate Park just a few miles away. Twenty-something runners from the Golden Gate Running Club are gathered at the water’s edge near Golden Gate Bridge.

Tracy Warner is running the six mile today toward Fort Mason and back again. Last year she ran her first and only half marathon – the same in which Peter Hass died this year.

She is fit with thin but strong muscles in the legs and the arms. Her hair is golden. She is 36 years old, and for the last 10 years she has been working as a teacher. She talks over her breath while running. She heard about Peter Hass, but she did not know his age.

“Was he young? 36, oh my God that’s awful. His family… So this has happened before,” she asks.

“Yeah, it happened in San Jose two years ago,” I respond.

Brandon Whitehurst, 35, from Antioch and 34-year old Rose Lo from South San Francisco died in Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in San Jose in 2009, reported. They both collapsed near the end of the 13.1 mile race.

Tracy Warner knows what it is like to push herself to the limit. She did that last year while running the half marathon. She had had a cold, so she was not able to prepare properly for the race. She started training two weeks before. The difficult point came after 10 miles with three to go.

“I felt like I could not go on. I felt like shit,” she says and laughs.

The sun lights up the green grass on Crissy Field to our right. Small waves move on the surface of San Francisco Bay to our left like a calm breath.

“I was exhausted and ready to throw myself on the road. My friend kept me going. I don’t like to fail. I would not start to walk while she was there. It was my desire to do well,” she says.

Before the finish line a thought echoed in her head: I can’t make it, I can’t make it. But I have to!

At the finish line everything changed.

“I felt so great after it, psychologically. I felt happy.”

The death of Peter Hass does not make her think twice about running.

“I think that it can’t happen to me, so it doesn’t scare me. It’s not gonna stop me from racing,” she says.

Thirty-one year old Alex Strehl is part of our group too. We have turned around after three miles and are now on the way back. He is a tall guy. He is very calm and runs like a strong machine. He likes to race up the hills. He has always been an athlete, and a couple of years ago he started to run.

One day he was bored at the office and he asked his colleagues if they wanted to run the stairs with him.

“No. Ask Dan,” they said.

And so Alex Strehl did. Dan beat  the hell out of him. But then Dan told Alex Strehl that he was an amateur stair climber and invited Alex Strehl to a stair climbing competition in Chicago.

“You just walk up the fastest you can. On the 80’th floor, I could not breathe anymore. It is very hard on the lungs, especially when you have asthma like I do. My lungs were burning and I was coughing for 30 minutes after I finished.”

We are back at Crissy Field.

“I’m gonna speed up for the end,” Alex Strehl says and increases the pace.

“Do you understand how people can push themselves so much that they die,” I ask him.

“Well they don’t know they are going to die. You have to go against what your body tells you. It’s important to be careful not over stressing the body. Some people do it, but it’s fairly rare. It’s not something I’m worried about,”  he says as we turn a little to the right and set in the final kick towards the meeting point. We are both coughing and breathing heavily.

“Hundred meters,” I say.

” Yeah, I’m beginning to slow down. I don’t want to stress my heart too much,” Alex Strehl says with a little smile.

“The good thing is that in the long run it is good for your heart to run,” I reply. “Runners actually have a lower mortality rate than others. I’m not gonna stop.”

“Me neither. Running is for life.”

” Yeah.”

You are seven times more likely to get a heart attack while running than at rest, the running expert, Thompson, tells me on the phone from Connecticut.

“While you are actually running it is seven times more dangerous. But that is just one piece of the puzzle. You have to look at the whole picture to understand it. We think that exercise overall reduces your chances of having a cardiac event, but while you are actually doing it your risk goes up,” he says.

I ask him if we should be afraid of running.

It depends on whether you like to do it or not, Thompson says. “I have always been running marathons, not for my health, but because I like running marathons. If you want to do things for your health there are a lot of other things that are just as helpful. But if you want to race marathons, you don’t have much choice but to race marathons.”


I am writing this sentence with exuding blisters on my feet, blisters that made me scream in the shower. The coffee rippled in my stomach as I stumbled through the Presidio with a heartburn. At Golden Gate Bridge I felt the blisters. But I had to cross it, that was my goal for the day. Like all great constructions, the dimensions of Golden Gate Bridge are hard to measure with the human eye. Red wires continuously entered the right side of my vision and left behind me. But the pylon did not seem to come any closer. The inner side of my shoe had started to eat my skin under the soccer socks. Like a little piranha it was digging into my flesh. Finally I reached the other side of the bridge. I was half way through. 

My feet hurt, but I realized that if I stopped, I would never make it back home. I had to keep on going. I thought of love. I considered if I should run that half marathon in 14 days. At one point the blisters stung so badly that I had to stop. I felt like running on pillows of liquid pain. But at this time I guess the pillows had been cut open. The skin had started to peel, leaving my raw flesh naked and vulnerable in front of the hungry piranha. So I started running again. Back home I rolled down my soccer socks. The skin curled in small heaps. I think I am going to run that half marathon.

Attorney investigates death of Peter Hass

The death of Peter Hass was controversial. Mindy Talmadge, a spokeswoman for the Fire Department, told the San Francisco Chronicle that, the firefighters were “appalled” that the event had no medical staff or basic equipment available near the finish line.

“Everybody who assisted on the resuscitation effort identified themselves. Not one person identified themselves as being part of the event medical team at any point. Our members were left reeling from the experience,” Talmadge said.

This statement was contradicted by Dave Rhody, founder and president of RhodyCo Productions, who produced the race. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Rhody said that emergency medical technicians based at two tents near the finish line were on the scene trying to help Hass within five minutes.

Spectators tell another version of the story. Many people commented on news articles on the internet the following days and on Facebook. A large number of people say that it took more than 20 minutes for the help to arrive. The day after the race Bill Smart wrote this on Facebook: “I stood there with my father in law watching in horror. This was (in my estimation) the most egregious, negligent thing I have ever witnessed. This poor gentlemen may have been dead the minute he hit the ground but I can tell you he was not given a fighting chance. He laid their for 31 minutes (I counted) without true medical support.”

Late response affects the chances of surviving, Thompson, the heart and running expert, says:

“If it takes half an hour the chances of survival are very poor, but you can keep someone going for half an hour with good CPR,” Thompson says.

In the days after Peter Hass died his friends and family searched for answers among the people who witnessed him die at the finish line. Peter Hass’ brother, Michael, responded publicly to a person who had commented on a news story about Peter Hass: “I am Peter Hass’s brother can you please contact me and tell me what you saw at the half marathon on Sunday. No family members or close friends were at this event with my little brother when he died. We just do not understand how this horrible thing happened. Please contact me.”

Friends and family have forwarded my emails to their attorney, Waldsmith, who contacted me. Waldsmith is now the one searching for answers. He is investigating what happened that sunny Sunday when Peter Hass died. He can not discuss details in the case until he knows if there is going to be a trial.

“Now I am just investigating. Once I find out what happened, we will decide what to do. The statistics tell me, that this case is going to be settled, but I prepare for trial,” he says.

Waldsmith is getting information from public records that he has requested from the City and County of San Francisco.

“I am trying to find out what the plan was for medical service at the race,” he says.


The cherries were blooming, a ship was gliding in on the bay deep down below, and the nerve neurons in the arch of my foot felt like angry electricity in a power line just longing to become sparks, make fire and destroy everything. Thats how I felt running on the stairs today. Before I went running I was reading Born To Run by Christopher McDougall. I learned that the foot contains a bunch of nerves. Actually the foot is just as sensitive as the tongue, he says. Three days ago I just ripped the skin of my foot exposing the flesh and all the nerves. No wonder it hurt. I feel stupid. How can you train for a half marathon in two weeks?

Department investigates itself

The controversy surrounding the Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon and the death of Peter Hass leads back to two different institutions in San Francisco. The Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation (ISCOTT) gives the permit whenever there is a big event in San Francisco such as the Chinese New Years parade or a race. ISCOTT issued a permit to Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon. Private organizers of races are required to provide their own medical staff, and part of ISCOTT’s job is to approve the medical plan. (You can see the medical plan here: 2011 Kaiser SF HM EMS Plan.) This is where another institution comes in to the picture: The Department of Emergency Management. Department of Emergency Management helps ISCOTT review the medical plan.

Laura Adleman is the press spokesperson with Department of Emergency Management. She explains the role of Department of Emergency Management, when medical plans are approved:

“The medical plan generally goes through us. We review the medical plan. You could say that we advise the committee,” Adleman says.

The day after the race deputy director with the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management Rob Dudgeon was quoted on He told that an investigation had been started to find out whether the emergency plan was fully implemented by the organizers of the race.

“We had a death at a race, and we had the city’s 911 system pulled in to provide medical assistance,” Dudgeon said. “So I’d say that the assets dedicated to the race were insufficient. We are investigating.”

The Department of Emergency Management, who advised ISCOTT approving the plan in the first place, is now investigating the very same plan.

A little more than two months after Peter Hass died I called Laura Adleman the first time. Department of Emergency Management was still working on the report, she said.

“I don’t have an exact date. It is still in progress, but I think it will come within the next couple of weeks,” Adleman said.

The investigation, that officers from Department of Emergency Management are doing, is called an after action report. Usually Department of Emergency Management do after action reports after big events that involve the whole city. After New Years evening and after the World Series Parade last fall the department decided to do after action reports as well.

“This is a slightly different situation, because it was a race. The reason we do the report is that the race had to draw upon 911. These types of events are required to provide their own medical resources. 911 is a fallback,” Adleman explained.

“Did your department have any comments to the emergency plan for the Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon, when you reviewed it for ISCOTT?”

“I can’t really go in to specifics before the report comes.”

“Did the race organizers follow the plan?”

“I can’t answer that now.”

Although 911 is a fallback it is still supposed to come when people are in need. Different sources report that it took the fire department more than 20 minutes to arrive to Peter Hass after he collapsed.

“Will the report include the fire departments role in this event?”

“Yes, I think it will look at all aspects of the plan,” Adleman said.

I call Adleman back in the beginning of May – a little more than two weeks later.

“No, it’s unfortunately not completed yet. It is still in progress. Maybe if you call me back in a week or so,” she says.

I ask her who is working on the report.

“It goes through a couple of people in the office who come with their inputs.”

After talking to Adleman the first time I checked the after action reports on the Department of Emergency Service’s website. One of the links does not work. The three links, which actually do work, lead to the after action reports of Cosco Butan oil spill November 7th 2007, New Years storm January 3-6th 2008 and Dubai Star oil spill October 30th-31st 2009. By looking at the release dates of the after action reports you can determine, that it took the Department of Emergency Services 4 moths and 5 days to do the after action report on Cosco Butan, 2 moths and 8 days for the New Years storm and 3 months and 5 days to do the report on Dubai Star.

The World Series Parade was on November 3rd 2010. It has now been 6 months. New Years evening was a little more than 4 months ago.

“I just looked at your home page, and I could not find the after action report from the New Years Parade,” I say to Laura Adleman talking to her the second time.

“That one is also not completed yet. We are still working on it,” Adleman says.

“And the World Series Parade.”

“It’s also not there. They are coming, but they are still in progress. Once they are completed they will be there. It’s just a matter of work load. We don’t have any specific deadline. Unfortunately I am not able to give you any more specific information.”

“But if I call you back in a week?”

“I can’t say for sure it will be done by then. I probably won’t have any more specific information for you,” Adleman says.

Laura Adleman later specified in an email, that the department was not being evasive: “These reports take considerable time to research, compile, and properly vet. The report on the Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon is in the final stages and will be available soon, based on current workload estimates.”

Eric Mar is the supervisor of Richmond District, which includes Golden Gate Park. On February 18 the SF Examiner reported that Mar had called for a hearing for the Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee in order to find out why the Department of Emergency Management approved the medical plan in the first place, if it thought the response was insufficient and if the San Francisco Fire Department should have acted differently during the race.

I have written several emails to Eric Mar and his staff and talked on the phone to people working for him. I would have liked to hear, if he has discussed these issues with the Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee and if not, when he is planning to do so.

But Eric Mar never called or emailed me back.


When my foot hit the ground I could feel the swung being pushed toward the pavement by the weight of my whole body, deforming and stretching the skin. The center of the wound does not seem to heal. It is like these small holes, that the ducks keep open, when the lakes freeze at winter. When I take my shoes of at night, I can see how the little piranhas in my sock have been feeding on the wound.

The music was blending together with the silent bay and the lights on the other shore. I was aiming for Fillmore to get back home. But in an intersection I turned left instead of right. The pain remained constant. Maybe it was even a little less now, because the wound was getting soaked in sweat and its own liquids and had easier to stretch with the bouncing swung. I ran to the crooked part of Lombart Street. Running is also about adventure. Exploring. I always have a craving to run, when I move to a new place. I ran up Lombart. Knowing that I was running on this beautiful scene with San Francisco’s skyline in my back made me go faster. Running is also about aesthetics. Restless winds blew on the stairs on Fillmore Street. They were chill and dragged my hair. I pushed my body through them. At Jackson I turned right. Alta Plaza Park smelled like newly cut grass and dew.

The man behind the numbers

Ryan Lamppa has worked on a database of runners in the US for nearly 20 years now. He studied history at college and worked as a teacher for four years. Then, in the beginning of the 1990’s, one of his friends was about to leave town. “I think you should take my job,” the friend said. The job was for the USA Track & Field, which controlled the database at that time. Running USA emerged from USA Track & Field in 1999, and Ryan Lamppa continued to control the database. He is now researcher and media director for Running USA, which is a non-profit organization representing the running industry. Ryan Lamppa is a runner, he loves numbers, and he loves teaching. So the job is ideal for him. He always has an answer or knows how to find it. He only recalls being stump twice for the last two decades. One of the times was when he got an obscure question about the mile. After talking to two different experts on the mile, he had to give up. He cares for the numbers in his database.

“I am not aware of any other database like this, and I have connections in almost every part of the world,” Lamppa says.

On March 16th 2011 he published the latest numbers. They show that the running sport is booming. The number of runners finishing a half marathon race increased by 24 percent from 1.1 to nearly 1.4 million Americans in 2010. Since 2000 the number of half marathon finishers has nearly tripled.

Ryan Lamppa says that his database gets numbers from around 90 percent of all half marathons in the US and more than 95 percent of the full marathons.

“Our numbers come from timing companies and events. The numbers are almost spot on because our universe is nearly complete,” Lamppa says.

507,000 runners finished a full marathon in the US in 2010, which was new record too.

Running USA has other companies doing surveys that estimate the total number of runners in the US. You have to be much more carefull with these numbers, Lamppa says.

“You have to take them with a lick of salt.”

These numbers have not come out for 2010 yet, so the most recent ones are from 2009. They show that 16.4 million americans ran 100 times or more that year. Even with a lick of salt this number can be a guide line to understanding how many people drop dead from running every year. This is the number that, combined with the knowledge from the running expert, Thompson, leads to a total of 1000 runners dying from heart attacks in the US every year.

I have not been able to talk to any of Peter Hass’ close friends or family. But I wonder how these thousands of families deal with such a tragedy. How do you make sense out of something that seems to make no sense at all? How do you keep on breathing when someone you loved has been taken away from you? I search the internet and find a new page describing the death of Peter Hass. It also mentions another runner. Bill Goggins. He died, 43-years old, in the San Francisco Marathon July 2006.

Five manhattans

Evan Ratliff had fallen a sleep on the couch, when a car key landed on his stomach. He woke up and walked to the open window. His friend Bill Goggins was standing down below with a huge grin on his face. Bill could not believe, that he had made the perfect shot.

This huge grin is one of the images that comes to mind when Evan thinks of his friend Bill. Later that year Bill got a heart attack and dropped dead two miles before finishing the San Francisco Marathon.

Bill was a journalist and worked at Wired Magazine, when Evan met him. Evan was applying for an internship at the magazine.

Bill was busy. Incredibly busy. That was the first impression Evan got. He did not get any response on his application for the internship. But after several phone calls where Bill would say “I call you back next week” Bill one day said “why don’t we meet up for drinks?”.

“My interview was over five manhattans in North Beach,” 36-year old Evan Ratliff says on the phone from New York where he lives and works as a journalist.


The breaks where uneasy spaces in which I could not find a place to fit in, so I just tried to blend in with the wall paper. I felt there was something that all the other kids had in common, that I was missing. So I had to show them. And so I did. I became an 11-year old running maniac. There was another guy from the school, who was running too. We teamed up. My stomach was hurting from anxiety when I knew I had to run after class. And we did not run for fun. We raced the same 4 kilometers, every time a couple of seconds faster than the last time. I also stopped eating. I only brought a tiny piece of bread to school. I was always hungry. I remember my mother coming home. She had bought chocolate. She just wanted me to eat something. I could tell that she was worried. But I could not afford to gain weight. I wanted to become the world champion one day and beat everybody. I won the national championship on my birthday, but I was not really happy. And then it slowly worn out. I was tired of running and a year later I quitted. But now I knew my boundaries. Once in a while I push myself a little towards them.

The mayor of North Beach

A pregnant woman and a man steps in to a bar on Market Street in San Francisco. Blackbird is like a perfectly edited magazine. Straight lines and figures form the room. A red sofa stretches along the wall opposite to the bar. Lights hang over the bar in cables in different lengths. The floor is formed by squared stones in black and discrete red. A pleasant smell of food blends with the mild air. People are laughing. It is a cool place. I meet the woman’s eyes and say “hi”. She seems kind and mild, and we exchange a couple of words before she asks me:

“Are you the journalist?”

“Yes, I am.”

On the phone Paul Donald had told me that his wife Janeen was pregnant, so I was pretty sure those where the people, I was supposed to meet, when I saw them entering.

I say hi to Paul. He has the same kindness to him. Bright grey hairs are taking over his beard. He is 41, but he looks like a young man when he smiles. There is something innocent and authentic about his face.

Paul met Bill in 1995 – a couple of years before Evan did. Paul worked as a designer on Wired Magazine. He was at the race with Bill’s sister and her boyfriend, when Bill died. They cheered him on a few miles before he collapsed.

We go to the bar. Janeen and Paul tell me, that they are having their child in two months. Paul orders a beer and pulls up some money. I take my card and say that I will get it. But it is cash only, so I rush to the ATM in the back of the room a bit embarrassed. Paul and Janeen are already at the red sofa when I come back.

“We got it,” Paul say.

On the phone from New York Evan tells me that Bill was called “the mayor of North Beach”. He loved this part of San Francisco where he lived for many years. North Beach is the neighborhood where Little Italy is, where red lights blink over Broadway, where Washington Square breaths like a green lung of joy, and where you can still smell the excitement of the beat generation and their howling writings and hearts.

“It was almost like he had a romantic view of San Francisco,” Evan says.

A woman that Bill lived with in North Beach describes it like this: “We would slipper around the apartment with our ratty old newspapers and candy bars, reading or watching television, laughing at ourselves all the way. We created our own melodious language that no one else appreciated.”

Paul sit at the edge of the red sofa leaning towards me. I move the chair closer to him. Janeen sits to Paul’s right. She is looking at him while he talks. Their hands are folded on her thigh. They met three years ago.

“We made things happen fast,” Paul says.

“I never met him,” Janeen says.

“Janeen never met Bill, but she knows his family, and she knows a lot about Bill because I talk about him all the time,” Paul says.

I ask Janeen what her impression of Bill is, based on the things she has heard from Paul.

“My first impression of Paul and Bill was that Paul loved Bill very, very much, Janeen says. “Even three years ago – it had already been two years since Bill died – the loss still felt very acute. I get the sense that Bill was so warm and magnanimous as a person. Enormous heart, enormous mind, included everybody …”

“… generous,” Paul continues. “Yeah magnanimous it’s a great word. It accomplishes a lot of things, but I think it is probably one of the best words to describe Bill.”

“Bill seemed to be tremendously cool in all the ways you wanna be cool,” Janeen says.

Bill grew up in Mill Valley near San Francisco. His mother was an art teacher. Bill’s father has got some of the same rare energy, that characterized Bill. Bill had two sisters, and he was very close to his family.

Paul is from the Midwest. He had just moved to San Francisco when he met Bill at Wired Magazine. When Paul was not able to go back home to his family for holidays he was always invited to the family celebration in Mill Valley. So Paul came close to everybody in Bill’s family.

Bill payed sincere attention to everything and everybody around him. Most of the other employees at Wired Magazine didn’t notice the guy working in the mail room. But the mayor of North Beach walked in and talked to him. When Bill found out that a friend or relative to the mail room employee had his art opening, he drove 20 minutes with the buss (Bill did not have a car) across San Francisco to be there at the opening, Paul recalls:

“And he shows up to support this person that he has never even met who is like some friend or the cousin or whatever of the mail room employee. Like that! That makes you feel good, when someone is as amazing as Bill and does that.”

Paul was with Bill the day before the marathon. They walked through the Golden Gate Park, and Paul realized that the marathon was a really big deal for Bill. Bill had gone through some tough times. He had been separated from his wife for around six years but they had not gotten the divorce yet. Bill had finally decided to finalize the divorce, which was something that he did not like but really needed to do. He was moving on from another relationship to a woman that he loved, but did not feel he was being met by. Paul had connected Bill with a new woman and Bill and her had just been on a first date. Bill had left Wired Magazine the year before. He was on the merge of making a big decision about what he wanted to do next. Running a marathon was part of this process.

“It was like turning a corner in his life,” Paul says. His voice slows down and he swallows a lump in his throat. Janeen’s right hand holds his hand tight on her thigh, her left hand strokes his back. Paul continues: “Because I realized how important it was to him, I really wanted to be there and support him as he was doing his thing.”

Evan had left Wired Magazine to work freelance, but he still hung out with Bill all the time. They where both bachelors, and they were part of a group of people who had worked or still worked at the magazine. Bill was the center of the social circle. “I’ll rattle your case”. Bill would say that all the time, and he would do it all the time. He would stop by his friends’ houses, bother them a little, have a chat. Like the day he made the perfect shot and hit Evan on the stomach. Often they would hang out at Mad Dog in Lower Haight watching English soccer. It was a big circle, some people joined it, others left. But Bill was always around.

“There was a time when I would call Bill at least every other night and ask what was going on tonight. He always knew,” Evan says.

Paul woke up at seven in the morning on July 30th 2006. The day of the race. He met up with Bill’s sister Aimee and her boyfriend at the corner of Guerrero and 14th Street. This was around mile 21 out of the 26,2 miles that make a marathon. Bill looked great when he passed them by. He didn’t seem to be sweating, and he was happy as can be with a big smile. He looked strong. He was ahead of the time he was aiming for, which would qualify him for the Boston Marathon. He looked like a million bucks, Paul recalls:

“Obviously little did I know, that was the last time I would see him alive.”

After Bill had passed them by on his way down Guerrero Paul, Aimee and her boyfriend considered if they should go home and take a nap. But they decided to go and meet Bill at the Ferry Building at the Embarcadero where the race ended. It was kind of mayhem there. There was so many people everywhere, and they could not find him. It seemed a little odd, because Bill was always very organized, and he would have a way of finding people. But at the same time it was just kind of crazy with all those people around. So they looked for half an hour, did not find him and decided that they would call him later.

Paul went home and took a nap. He was awakened by the phone. It was Bill’s sister Aimee saying: “You know why we didn’t see Bill after the race?”. “No, why?”. “Because he’s dead”. The next week was just a fog.

The second Evan heard Paul’s voice, he knew that something had happened. It was nighttime in Brooklyn. He had moved there a couple of months before. He knew that Bill was running the marathon. Bill had told Evan about his training and how he was gearing up for it. Evan do not remember Paul’s exact words. It was surreal to learn that his friend had died and then being so far away. If he had been in San Francisco, he was sure that he would have been there at the race. Evan was sitting alone in his apartment. He did not know what to do. He was numb.

Bill ran approximately three more miles after passing by Paul, Aimee and her boyfriend. Then he collapsed and died from a heart attack. Another friend of Bill, Joshua Davis, who is also a journalist, wrote a story about Bill. Davis got access to the autopsy report. It determinates that Bill died from a thickened muscle in the heart, which made it difficult for the blood to flow in to his arteries. The condition is called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). Davis’ research discovered that one in 500 people have HCM, and that the first symptom often is death.

Paul went for a long walk after talking to Aimee. He walked through Dolores Park, up to Liberty Street and ended up on a tea shop in the Castro. He sat down and started to write everything he remembered of the last 24 hours. He knew he would not remember otherwise. Then he went home. That night he had to call some people. It was a lot of strange conversations. He called Evan in New York. He called the woman that Bill had been dating but was ending the relationship to. She was in New York with her father who was dying. Paul also talked to the girl that Bill had been on a first date with only a few days before.

“I did not know her very well and I had to call her. She came over and we just hung out and drank tea and talked. I saw her a couple of times that week. She was freaked out, and I was freaked out. I remember we shared a ride to the funeral, which was on Friday …,” Paul says adding more to the sentence as the memories come streaming by. His eyes seems to be out of focus while he relives that day in the beginning of August 2006. “… I think she drove.”

Paul went to Mill Valley to visit Bill’s family the day before the funeral. He saw Bill for the last time. He didn’t look like himself. He looked like an old man. Paul felt that the funeral director had done a really bad job with Bill.

“But I also felt that Bill had lived so much in his life, and he finally showed it after he died. He putted on like 15 years.”

Paul was stressed out at the end of that week. He arranged a gathering for Bill’s friends, and the family had asked him to say something at the reception after the funeral. He was nervous about what to say in order to honor Bill.

“I felt I was in charge of a lot of things. I was probably not processing it as much as I should have.”

Paul looks at Janeen and says:

“Janeen actually witnessed, I think, a big moment for me. It was not long after we met.”

The San Francisco Marathon continues to run on the same route. Paul and Janeen where walking by the spot where Paul had cheered Bill on two or three years before. The streets where closed of, runners sucked on sports gel and threw their water cups everywhere, cops guided the traffic, and the city felt unique in the same way it did that morning in 2006 when Bill died. Paul was overwhelmed, and suddenly it all came flooding back. Bill should be here! It’s not … it’s not right. Damn it. Bill should be here, and he is not. He grabbed Janeen and cried at her neck.

“It made a difference that Janeen was there. I felt comfortable sharing that side of myself with her. It was really nice to have somebody there who I cared about.”

Janeen says:

“We were happy. We were actually having a really lovely morning. I remember that.”

Paul takes over:

“I think that was a part of it: This is such a great time, Bill would so enjoy this. God damn it, he is not here. And I really… I told you this a million times,” Paul says and looks directly at Janeen. “But I so wish Bill could have met you.”

The absence of Bill makes Paul’s thoughts become existential.

“Something is wrong in the universe. Bill should have been here to enjoy these moments, and he is not here. It is not right, damn it. It’s just a big fucking shame, that Bill isn’t still with us. It’s wrong. It’s just tremendously sad for everybody involved. We all would benefit from him being here still with us.”

“Do you feel angry,” Janeen asks Paul.

“Ehm, only a little, if at all. He was doing what he truly wanted to be doing. There was nothing that he wanted more in that moment than to be running that race, and he was doing that. So what is there to be angry at? His body? Well we all have, you know… no I don’t think I’m angry. I’m sad. It’s a tragedy.”

Bill had trained hard for the marathon with a professional trainer.

“I don’t see how he could have been better prepared except from having this random test, that would have proven that he had this condition. And even then, Bill was such a stubborn sun of a gun, the race was really important to him, I don’t know if he would have said: ‘Well you know something bad could happen, I’m not gonna run this race’. I bed he would have said: ‘No, fuck it!’.”

Evan does not run marathons because he is to lazy, he says and laughs on the phone. But he thinks that it is a great thing.

“There are many ways do die, and some are completely accidental. If people wants to run a marathon they should not sit around not doing something that could change their life,” he says.

Bill’s sudden death made his friends think about their own lives. Especially the fact, that Bill was in the middle of a transition, made Evan think:

“He wanted to start over and he died in the middle of that. That made me think about what I wanted to do with my life,” Evan says.

Evan often think of Bill. Bill learned him a lot about journalism, and he showed him San Francisco. He was a mentor and a friend. Evan often wants to call Bill, talk to him and get his advise or just hang out.

“The pain is not there as much as before. It’s more like an absence,” Evan says.

In the aftermath of Bill’s death Paul felt that Bill gave him a tremendous gift:

“Not in dying itself, but sort of in the wake of his death I realized that he continued to give. And the gift that he gave was this reminder that life is short and you really need to live it fully.”

It is around 9 p.m., and the sound cloud on Blackbird grows as more people enter. It smells like food. Paul looks at Janeen.

“Are you hungry?”


“Okay, I think we need to get the baby fed,” Paul says and prepares to stand up. “Well Evan is coming to town in a few weeks. We’ll definitely be going out and have some drinks so I will let you know. It would be good for you to meet him. He is a good guy.”

“I would love to do that,” I say.

“We’ll rattle your case,” Paul says.

I think to myself: That is Bill speaking.

The half marathon

A woman in her 20’s sits on the asphalt stretching. She is surrounded by a wall of impatient muscles. The gun goes of. I run over the mat, that registers my starting time. 

We form a snake as we run along Crissy Field. Cautious sunbeams makes their way from the horizon and split into magic light when they hit a drop of mist in the morning air. We cross the bridge and go back. A man loose his balance down a hill and falls on the asphalt. He gets up again. We come back to the water. I am getting really worried, because my left knee is starting to tighten up and hurt. There is more than three miles to go. I am running with my camera and a recorder, and I want to record the sound of waves splashing on the stones under Golden Gate Bridge. I squat over a chain and steps down on the edge before the big stones. And then I fall. The edge is slippery from algae, and my foot just disappears underneath me. The rest of the race is painful. I have to stop and stretch the knee. I hear a man’s deep voice behind me: “Run”. I think he is talking to someone else. Then it comes again. “Run”. He says it while breathing out, and the shock of his body landing on the feet reverberates through the body and pushes the air out of his lungs. It makes his outburst very sudden. Hwrun! He is talking to himself. I wish I had been training more for this race. I force my legs to keep on going, breath wild and loudly. And then i finish. 1 hour and 55 minutes. That is far from my time last year, which was 1 hour and 34 minutes. But I am just happy that I made it.

After the race I stand on the pier at the end of Van Ness Avenue, which fences Aquatic Park, and look at the water. The color is a mix between green and brown without looking dirty. Sunlight creates small mosaics that constantly change as the water flows. I look at the white foam on the little waves reshaping into new figures on the surface. And I realize that I have been standing their for several minutes not thinking of anything but this water. 


I sit at my computer. I scroll down a guest book on the internet, where people who knew Peter Hass have written about him. Peter Hass and his family have been in my mind almost every day since I saw that headline in the San Francisco Chronicle and learned about his death. The last month he has been accompanied by Bill Goggins, who died in 2006. They both seem to have been such wonderful persons. The more I learned about them the more I would have liked to meet them alive. Their deaths seem meaningless. I have tried to find a meaning by talking to experts on hearts, looking in research papers and statistics and interviewing friends. But it doesn’t make sense. Thompson pretty much sums it up:

“You exercise for the long term gain but it is just like the stock market: You could loose everything.”

This is not the stock market. This is about life and death and love. Peter Hass and Bill Goggins both had generous and loving hearts that stopped beating way to early. I was deeply touched when I read about Bill Goggins on, and when I talked to his friends Evan and Paul. I have not talked to any close friends or family of Peter Hass – only the attorney. But I get the same heavy feeling now sitting at my desk the day before I will finish the story.

Forty-nine people have posted words about Peter Hass on I slowly read every entry. At the bottom of page six I read this: “My dear friend Eden – we have been friends for so long we are really family. I love you, Gavin and Peter so much. My heart is aching and my faith rattled. Peter was truly one of a kind, so caring, so giving, so loving and could hold court in any room he entered. The grief and loss I am feeling is devastating so Nenen I can only imagine what you must be going through, but please know I am here for you now tomorrow and always. I will see to it that you are always surrounded by friends and family and that Gavin and baby number two know all about their amazing daddy. I love you Nenen and will be here for you always. Please know that you can count on me for anything. I love you.” The screen in front of me has become blurry and my chest is heavy. I am crying.

The street is crowded. Clad in olive green army suits, men line the side of the brick wall. Their shiny medals are adorned with color, different flags meaning different ranks, different fights, different countries, and different experiences. The women giggle loudly around them. Excited to see their brothers, boyfriends, or potential ones. Short stacked heels, red lips and freshly dyed hair, it’s hard to differentiate between them. Cigarette smokes swirls, and wing-tipped glasses are foggy. A musician begins to unload for the second time that night on the corner of Webster and Post streets.

Before there was the infamous Fillmore, before the Great American Music Hall, before the Warfield, there was “Bop City,” located at 1690 Post Street.

Jimbos Bop City. photo from Carol Chamberlain

Developed in the back of Jimbo’s Waffle house, “Bop City” became the Fillmore District’s main attraction for local and traveling musicians. Often called just “Jimbo’s,” the back of the restaurant was given the nickname “Bop City” after the New York club with the namesake closed a few years previous. Between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. the club opened after all the other restaurants and clubs had closed around San Francisco. On any given night, Duke Ellington, Chet Baker, Miles Davis or Billie Holiday might be found performing at Bop.

“Oh yeah I remember the Bop,” recalls bassist Terry Hilliard, “I remember it well.”

Despite its thriving music scene and emerging restaurants and shops, by the late 1950s the Fillmore was being called a “slum.”

During the late 1890s, Japanese immigrants began to move into the Fillmore District, joining the already established white and European community and began to establish what is now Japantown. After the 1906 earthquake, the Fillmore became San Francisco’s financial center, as downtown was being rebuilt and restored.

Because of this, more people moved into the area and created somewhat of a “melting pot” of cultures.  While there had been African American and Mexican families in the area before the earthquake, racism and segregation made it difficult for more families to move from neighboring cities like Oakland who were more populated with people of color.

the Japanese community, which totaled well over 5,000 people, was forcibly removed during WWII and replaced with thousands of African Americans looking for wartime jobs. Between 1940 and 1950 the African American population grew tenfold and began to shine as the largest condensed African American population in the West.

Within five years, the Japanese community had returned to the area, and as many describe it, had to “start over” again. Things had changed dramatically during the war, and now the Western Addition was heavily populated and store fronts where predominantly geared at the African American population in the neighborhood. The area became known as the “Harlem of the West,” with jazz clubs like the Blackhawk, the Primalon Ballroom, and the Ellis Theatre bustling any night of the week.

Attracting large acts like Sammie Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck San Francisco was becoming a premiere destination for live acts on the West Coast.

Geary Street, 1960. Photo from KQED

The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency sought to “improve” the area in the late 1940s, which ended up displacing many African American families and encouraged many to the suburbs in the East Bay where homes are typically larger and rent cheaper.


The dark doors are heavy, shiny black and the steel handle is freezing cold. With one push of the door a blast of air, hot from the fifty or so bodies crowded at the bar and eager diners dripping in pearls and handsome suits, hits the new customers as the enter the restaurant.  Waiters in white crisp jackets buzz by with plates of Kobe and sautéed Rainbow Trout weaving in and out of the crowds. An occasional broken glass or stumble breaks the seamlessly hectic rhythm.

Terry Hilliard unpacks his large stand-up bass case by the coat-check closet. Always clad in a tan trench coat and black fedora, his glasses are a bit foggy from the rain. Calm, collected and impeccably polite, he hands over his jacket to the host, “How are you tonight?”

Customers at the bar at Bix Restaurant. Bix is located at 56 Gold Alley, San Francisco

Hilliard was born in Illinois in 1936 and shortly thereafter his family moved to the West Coast eventually settling in Berkeley. Hilliard played the trumpet and guitar during high school, but while attending San Francisco State University he began to play the bass. Participating in music workshops in the East Bay, Hilliard had the opportunity to study with the likes of Ray Brown, Papa Gene Wright and Skippy Warren. Hilliard went on to transfer to Monterey Peninsula College so that he could study with Jerry Coker.

In the fall of 1958, Hilliard played the famous Monterey Jazz Festival and later that year was hired to play in the house band at Bop City. “We used to run those other guys off the stage,” Hilliard says with a luscious chuckle. “I mean, I am not kidding. We would start playing in all these crazy times and those guys wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

Like many of the young musicians of the time, Hilliard was drafted into the Korean War at the end of 1958. However, a friend got him transferred to the Special Services so he could play instead of fight.

“I was lucky, I missed training camp and everything,” he remembers. “I just went straight to Washington and started touring.” He returned home in 1960 to play at the Worlds Fair in Seattle with Johnny Bassett, a staple in the music industry who would then become a producer for late night television programs and the creative director of the Edinburgh International Festival.

“I missed an entire world tour because of an impacted wisdom tooth,” Hilliard sighs. “I mean, that’s life. You just can’t win them all I guess.”

Even while he sighs, his smile reaches through the phone.

He then recorded on Cal Tjader’s songs “Soul Sauce” and “Soul Bird,” which would make Hilliard a household name. This would allow Hilliard to be booked “80 percent of the year,” he remembers, “It was a really exciting time for me.” And while Hilliard was touring cities like Chicago, Detroit or New York, back at home, San Francisco’s music scene was beginning to dissipate.

Terry Hilliard has played all over the world

During the 1960s Jazz was becoming more mainstream and with places like Bop City, who had a no tolerance policy on violence and segregation in the club, more people of all colors were listening and attending shows. “I never felt any type of racism playing,” Hilliard, with assurance, says. “I always played in integrated bands and while there were some places I couldn’t play at, the ones I did were just fine, just fine. Nobody ever treated me badly.”

Dixieland and Bebop style was now being considered “traditional” as acid jazz and free jazz artists dismissed the styles and starting experimenting with new sounds and instruments. Thelonis Monk and Miles Davis were emerging with new attitudes and clothing and clubs like Bop City and San Francisco’s other famous club “Blackhawk” were not only being less frequented but also plans of their removal were already underway.

Justin Herman was the infamous director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency between 1959 until 1971. A proponent of the “redevelopment” of over 60 blocks in the area, Herman, who now has a plaza dedicated to him, was instrumental in the demolishment of thousands of homes in the Western Addition neighborhood, including the building that once housed Bop City. The building was at first relocated a few blocks away for historical preservation but is no longer in existence. “We were part of this little moment in time that I don’t think could happen now,” says Hilliard of Bop City. “It just isn’t the same anymore.”

Justin Herman Plaza is in one of the most desirable areas of San Francisco

The Redevelopment Agency named the plan, “Phase A-1,” and important neighborhood fixtures like “The Chicago Barber Shop,” were given slips that would allow them precedence to move back into the neighborhood once the redevelopment was completed. Unfortunately the redevelopment wouldn’t conclude until the year 2000, long after many shop owners were already dead or had moved on to other cities.

After Phase A-1 was completed, ten years later Herman would begin what was deemed “Phase A-2” in 1963. Hiring a Western Addition minister, the Reverend Wilbur Hamilton, as Director of A-2, Herman felt the pressure to create alliances after the newly formed Western Addition Community Organization (WACO) filed a major lawsuit as well as started picketing the projects. But by 1970 most of the Western Addition has been cleared out, inundated with empty lots and unusable fields. Herman would eventually suffer a major heart attack and pass away in 1971, leaving the neighborhood unfinished and in some cases, inhabitable.

“Have you ever heard of a place called ‘Aspen,’” Hilliard asks excited, just remembering his days in the integrated Playboy Band that played all over Hollywood in the mid sixties. “It’s really nice, we would play banquets there, that’s when Lillian, my wife at the time, when she was with us.”

It was a waiter named Mike who gave a bunch of musicians an idea in the middle of a Italian restaurant in Aspen that made Aspen a success for Hilliard and his cohorts. The waiter’s suggestion: make up a rumor to get you in the big hotels.

The men had a perfect co-conspirator for their ruse. She was beautiful, exotic and foreign. Her long hair was perfectly pinned and her wing-tipped glasses shaded a soft black. Against the large cascading mountains and small creeks, the Princess of Ragune seemed out of place but in her beauty there was a calmness that overshadowed her royal lineage.

“Have you heard this Princess is in town for the Summer Rodeo?” a local shop boy said to his boss. “Really? Here? Are you sure,” the boss couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t the season anyway. All the celebrities came during the winter and, while most of the tourists were wealthy, he for sure would have heard if there was royalty in the little skiing town. A woman, dressed in a light green gingham dress with a tan straw hat looks up from her basket, “I actually saw her the other day, and she is here.”

The Princess of Ragune did indeed help the band play at the banquet hall and it was also the Princess, or as Hilliard fondly called her “Lillian,” who brought Hilliard home. Leaving touring and eventually starting a new life as a computer engineer, Hilliard never left his musical life behind either. “I just have to play,” he says.

“I have known Terry for a long time, since the mid 50s probably,” Stan Popper, the legendary drummer from Oakland, says. “We go way back.”

Born in Oakland to a Hungarian mother and a San Francisco native father, Popper started his musical career at Oakland High School. “I wasn’t very good,” he says. “I got way better when I returned back from the Air Force.” His voice dim but strong, Popper struggles to remember some of the clubs he played at during his young years. The house drummer at Jimbos for just a few months, Popper left to tour with the famous guitarist Barney Kessel. Kessel is popular for his Dixieland style and most famous album “Workin’ Out,” which Popper is featured on. Kessel also appeared on the Beach Boys song “Wouldn’t it be Nice,” integrating him in newer generations. Kessel died in San Diego in 2004 from heart complications.

“That was amazing to play with him. We played all the major cities, New York, Chicago, Detroit, you name it, it was such an amazing time for me,” Popper smiles. Popper also played weekly with the likes of Pony Poindexter. Poindexter was the inspiration for Neal Hefti’s song, “Little Pony,” which he wrote for the Count Basie Orchestra. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, Popper would play with Poindexter at the Coffee Gallery in San Francisco’s North Beach District on Green Street.

Now almost 80 years old and living in Hayward, Popper plays on occasion and speaks fondly of his choice to eventually only play music part time. “I had to get a day job, you know how that is,” he continues. “I met my wife while I was working for the Crocker bank. We hit it off immediately and we had two children, two boys.” Neither of his sons plays music but still live in the area.

“I wouldn’t change a thing, not a minute of it,” he says as he wraps up his memories. “Because musically speaking, I was a part of something so big, so amazing. It was truly the best of times, the best.”

Fillmore Street, around 1960. Public Library of San Francisco

Not only were steel workers, nurses and other government workers seeking to organize. Located right in Western Addition, the Musicians Local 6 Union began to set standards for jazz musicians during the late 50s.The Local 6 was created in the late 1890s, helped to form the San Francisco Opera, Symphony and Ballet, but it wasn’t until the Fillmore Jazz “Renaissance” did the union really come together.

“There was actually two ‘Locals’ at that time, unfortunately,” Rudi Salvini, trumpet player and another long-time friend of Hilliard says. “There was a white Local, and then there was a black Local.”

Mr. Salvini is another Oakland native, born in 1925 and began playing the trumpet at 10 years old while he was in elementary school. After high school, Salvini enrolled in the music program at San Francisco State University, but was quickly drafted to the war.

Rudy Salvini Courtesy of the Local 6 website

“I was stationed in Germany and played with the 761st Army Air Force band,” he says of his time away. After a recommendation from a friend, he joined the 314th General Arm Forces Band, which included the best musicians stationed in Europe at the time. “We were broadcasted every Sunday from the Wiesbaden Opera House for the Army Air Force Radio Network,” Salvini said. A famous singer was also in that band, Tony “Bennett” Benedetto.

Two years later, Salvini was back at San Francisco State joined by other Bay Area Jazz musicians Allen Smith, Paul Desmond and Cal Tjader. Continuing his education and receiving his teachers credentials in 1953, Salvini would eventually teach music in Pacifica for over 25 years. Salvini has had much success with his 17-piece band that he still plays with today. “I am still playing with about three or four of my original members. We have been playing for over 60 years together,” Salvini said.

Rudy Salvini orginal flyer courtesy of the Local 6 website

“We had meetings every month, we would meet for like 20 minutes then just have a jam session, it was great,” Hilliard says of the union meetings. The union still represents musicians in the area. Hilliard, Salvini and Popper were members. Setting ethical standards and encouraging diversity among bands and policy, the Local 6 was instrumental in ensuring that musicians during the 50s were paid properly and treated with “dignity and respect.”

“Basically black’s couldn’t play at the Fairmont, or the big hotels, but at the Blackhawk and Bop they could,” Salvini says. “It is a really unfortunate part of our history.”

“I never felt any type of violence or hatred,” Popper said when asked if he saw any racism during his touring days. “I never saw a thing.” Though Popper presumably wouldn’t have directly felt any violence being Caucasian, he, like many other musicians at the time, did their due diligence in joining organizations like the Local 6 so that they could avoid harmful situations.

Nowadays Hilliard’s calendar is only slightly less full than it was over fifty years ago, with a standing gig on Friday nights at Bix Restaurant. He just finished recording an album with Junius Courtney Big Band and received San Francisco Jazz Heritage Center’s Heritage Pioneer Award, presented to Hilliard by San Francisco Mayors Gavin Newsom and Willie Brown in 2005.

Plucking slow and deep Hilliard closes his eyes and tilts his head up. Renditions of “They Can’t Take That Away,” and “Lazy Bird” linger in the loud gilded room but Hilliard looks quiet, he looks calm and he is playing as if the breaking glasses and women who have had too much chardonnay are cackling.

Slowly walking off the stage for a well-deserved twenty- minute break, Hilliard returns to the host, asking for his jacket so he can enjoy the fresh chill air in the small alley outside. The dressed-up commuters from the Peninsula and socialites from Nob Hill have no idea who they are in the presence of when they ask their waiter who the band “is.” Walking by Hilliard, they give regards and praise.  Always polite, Hilliard replies, “Oh I have been playing around for a while now,” when the bland patrons ask how long he has been playing bass. It seems ridiculous, in a way, that Hilliard, Popper, Salvini and the rest of the musicians that are still alive aren’t as easily recognized as some of the strung out twenty-somethings of today are.

Rudy Salvini played with Dave Brubeck at the Blackhawk

The same brick wall is cold now, fifty-five years later. An occasional band of teenagers yell loudly, holding iPhones blaring T-Pain. They lean on the wall of the Boom Boom Room, located on the corner of Fillmore and Geary, waiting for the 38 Geary Bus to take them to the cold, foggy, grey Richmond District where they live. Little do they know, as they glance up at the empty and faded Fillmore West, that Duke Ellington strolled down the street. They don’t know that restaurants were packed all day long along the street that is now barren and empty.

“I thought people only hung out at night on the block,” Devin,  14 years old, says. “Nobody is ever around. “