Under Currents: Oakland in Tatters, Jerry Brown Raises His Aim

Friday January 23, 2004

I can’t remember who told me this story. Could have been my father—it sounds like something he would have said. Could have been something I read someplace. Anyhow, in the version I remember, a guy works for years in a warehouse, along with a lot of his buddies. All day long he tells jokes, and he has all the guys cracking up. Jokes about the boss. Jokes about their small paychecks. Jokes about how fat one of his buddies is getting. Jokes about himself. When they knock off at five o’clock every evening, they all stop at a bar a block down from the warehouse, and they drink a couple of beers apiece, and this guy is always in the center of the crowd, all his buddies surrounding him, and he’s telling jokes, and everybody’s laughing. He’s one of those natural comics. Everybody loves him. He ought to be on Comedy Central. 

And then one day the warehouse foreman retires, and the boss calls him into the office and gives this guy the job. And when he walks back out onto the floor, he’s no longer just one of the guys. Sure, he tries to be. But now he’s the one who decides who has to stay over late to load a truck, and who gets to go home. He’s the one who has to write up the reports for the guys coming in late. When work gets slow and someone has to be laid off, he’s the one who sits in the meeting with the boss, where they decide who that someone is going to be. 

This guy tries hard to be the same guy he always was. On the warehouse floor all day, and at the bar after hours, he tells the same jokes he always did, but he doesn’t seem to get the same kinds of laughs. The guys give a weak grin, just for show, and then they turn and walk away. So the guy goes home and explains the situation to his wife and asks him what’s wrong—is he losing his comic touch?—and she says, no, it’s just that when you are in charge, your jokes stop being funny. 

One has to always be careful, taking your impression of an event from a newspaper account. Being a reporter myself, I know the danger. There’s no such thing as objective, unbiased reporting. You see the world through your own eyes, and that viewpoint filters back through how you describe what you’ve seen. A word changed, here or there, and you get vastly different impressions of a scene. 

You have to be doubly careful when that scene describes something being said or done by Mayor Jerry Brown. I don’t fancy myself a Brown expert, but I’ve had the chance to interview him a time or two, and observed him from a bit of a distance during his five years or so as mayor of my native city. He’s one of the more enigmatic men you are likely to meet. I’ve watched him fumble and stumble over himself behind that deadpan delivery and wondered, is this a mind so bright and brilliant that it’s just too preoccupied with reaching that far distant mountaintop to worry about the stray trip over a pebble in its path, or is this merely clever posturing by a charlatan, a wink and a nod to the knowing while the magician dupes the rest of the crowd? Concerning Mayor Brown, there is no definitive answer. 

All that being said, even within those many Brown-as-Oakland’s-savior believers amongst us, there must have been a bit of a pause in reading Heather MacDonald’s recent Oakland Tribune account of Mayor Brown’s power-breakfast, State of the City address to members of Oakland’s Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. I will quote liberally. 

“Mayor Jerry Brown had Oakland’s business leaders rolling in the aisles Wednesday morning as he painted a rosy picture of the state of the city,” Ms. MacDonald’s story begins. “[A]s leaders networked between mouthfuls of scrambled eggs and potatoes” the mayor delivered “punch lines.” “The crowd of business people, lawyers and public officials laughed easily at Brown’s seemingly ad-libbed jokes.” And, then, the remarkable story recounted: “As he was leaving City Hall late one night this week, Brown said he was stopped by a man who told him how wonderful downtown Oakland was, as compared with where he was from. ‘Then he told me he had just come from prison,’ Brown said, prompting gales of laughter.” 

Everybody is free to have their own interpretation of these remarks. The members of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, their mouths stuffed with scrambled eggs and potatoes, had theirs. You can have yours. Here is mine. 

Jerry Brown ran for mayor of Oakland on three promises. He would bring and economic revival to the downtown area. He would improve the public schools. He would make our streets safer. 

Five years have passed. While there have been a few improvements here and there—and there are always a few improvements, here and there, under any administration—downtown Oakland remains pretty much the way it was left when Elihu Harris closed the door behind him. A few bright spots, but mostly a wandering wasteland without coherent plan for correction. In that same time, Oakland’s public school system is in complete disarray, seized by the State of California, threatening bankruptcy, parents and students fleeing to other systems, on the verge of losing several of its campuses. And as for our safer streets? Oakland’s murder rate is soaring, the city has become more dangerous, with whole neighborhoods at risk. It’s hard to make a case that we are better under Brown. 

But now comes the mayor, over toast and eggs, making jokes about it all with the business leaders of the city. “I guess we’re nation building there,” Ms. MacDonald quotes Mr. Brown about President Bush’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. “There are some blocks in Oakland that I’d like to nation build.” 

The business leaders laughed. Living on one of those blocks, and listening to the man who is responsible for our welfare, I apologize, but I don’t find it quite so funny.