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The Day Harvey Milk Didn't Die

He was marked for assassination, but somehow cheated death—and history was rewritten.


Editor's note: This is one of many stories about LGBTQ life in the Bay Area that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the June 2016 Pride Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.


The tiny boxes, painted in saltwater taffy colors, spiral their way up one side of the hill and wend their way down the other. Through the thick fog curling outside his kitchen window, Harvey Milk can’t see the squat, gray downtown towers, but he can feel their stolid presence. The monoliths atop Corona Heights Park are faintly visible, as are the human forms milling about them, playing hooky on a late Monday morning. The knotty pine walls in the living room, adorned with but a few old political maps, are essentially bare. Looking out the window onto the city he’s helped to shape fills Milk with a quiet happiness on most days. Other times, he sees only ghosts, and must turn away.

Milk pours boiling water into the Melitta and offers me a cup of Café Bustelo in a mug marking a long-ago visit to the Florida Keys (or to Thrift Town; he’s not sure). The coffee is welcome: Milk keeps the heat in here set at an un-Key-West-like 65 degrees. “I don’t want trouble with the landlord; he’s a cheap old bastard,” he explains. Milk owns the building, and has for quite some time. This is, clearly, a line that has been delivered on many previous occasions to many previous guests over many drip cups of industrial-strength coffee. Regardless, at 86, Milk remains a funny guy. You laugh even when you know what’s coming.

His friends and family have issued an official fatwa on ponytails, so Milk is pretty clean-cut these days; his hair is more gray than black now, but his prominent ears peek through at the sides as they always have. Milk is outfitted in his lifelong preferred attire of Levi’s 501s and a T-shirt, which he justifies with another well-worn but no less apt adage: “Every day’s a Saturday for a retiree.” 

As the coffee cools and the day warms, more and more of Milk’s beloved city comes into view from his perch on Clifford Terrace. You can see where things are—or aren’t—as a result of his influence. There’s the tapioca-colored LGBTQ senior housing complex protruding from the side of an ersatz forest atop a hill; the conspicuous gaps in the skyline that he fought to keep (somewhat) skyscraper-free; the tiny cars perambulating by 280 and 101, the city’s lone remaining highways. Taking it all in through the window, it somehow feels like this view—the streets, the houses, the rocky hills obscuring the pile of rubble marking the site where the Tampa Bay Giants used to play 81 home games a year—has always been just so. It feels as if the city beyond these walls has been just so forever. But “forever” in San Francisco never lasts close to forever.

Milk’s ephemeral city was founded upon lust for gold, nourished by lust for most everything else, and sandwiched between two earthquake faults. Most famously, it was transformed in a few hours in 1906. But, truth be told, it’s been transformed many other times, the shift often triggered by the events of one single day, when actions taken or decisions made changed the city to a seismic degree. November 27, 1978, was one of these days. Because nothing changed.

Milk offers a wan grin. “Oh yeah,” he says, his Long Island origins still easily detectable with every broad intonation and subtly clipped g. “You’re talkin’ to a dead man. And,” he adds, checking his watch for dramatic effect, “that’s been the case now for nearly as long as I been alive.”

On that day 37 and a half years ago, Milk’s colleague Dan White, a movie-star-handsome former supervisor, was driven to City Hall, as he often was, by his legislative aide. Unbeknownst to her or anyone else, White, an ex-cop, was packing his police .38 Special, as well as 10 extra cartridges meticulously nestled in his pocket. City Hall that day was on high alert—not against homicidal lawmakers, but due to rumors that zealots aligned with the recently departed Reverend Jim Jones would unleash a murderous rampage. Rather than try to talk his way past the cop at the metal detector, White made his way toward the McAllister Street entrance. And it was here that San Francisco’s future was altered, randomly and permanently.

As White attempted to elude security by clambering through a basement window, his revolver inexplicably discharged. Within seconds, he was swarmed by a phalanx of guards fearing the Peoples Temple killers had arrived. White’s later statement to his buddy (and future San Francisco police chief) Paul Chignell revealed a feverish plot—fueled by political inadequacy and failure and fermented during marathon late-night-TV and Twinkie-bingeing sessions—to execute both Mayor George Moscone and Milk for the political humiliations he felt were their doing.

Milk—then still a supervisor—had all but envisioned his assassination. During the 1978 Gay Freedom Day parade in which he was captured on film riding atop a Volvo, laughing uproariously and brandishing a sign reading, “I’m from Woodmere NY,” he quizzed his driver on whether she knew the quickest route to the hospital. In a pre-email age, death threats were frequently mailed to Milk’s office by homophobes. Milk even recorded an audiotape naming his potential successors, to be presented to Mayor Moscone upon his prophesied violent death; the supervisor’s staff razzed him that he wasn’t “important enough” to be assassinated. But he was.

Milk is, now as ever, a captivating speaker. But it’s hard not to grow distracted as he ruminates in his kitchen about the city’s bloodier days and how he was nearly consumed by them. And, truth be told, it’s hard not to daydream while gazing out the window over Milk’s shoulder. There is a tendency, when assessing this city’s mixture of surreal beauty, visceral allure, and chronic dysfunction, to surmise that all of this was inevitable. That, almost Calvinistically, we have ended up where we were always bound to end up. But that’s not so. Had White murdered Moscone and Milk that day as he’d intended to, we’d live in a vastly different city than we do today.

Before he was elected
mayor in 1983, Harvey Milk bought some new suits. He needed them; the suits Milk wore as supervisor were frayed and ill-fitting hand-me-downs from a former campaign manager’s deceased lover and were obtained for the price of a dry-cleaning ticket. Milk enjoyed sticking his hand into his pocket and waving to people through the torn lining or putting his shoe up on his desk in board chambers to reveal a hole. That fit his image.

“This town was willing to elect a homo,” Milk says now, with a mischievous grin. “It was not going to elect a hobo.” He remedied the situation by heading to Grodin’s and picking up four new outfits (including the brandy-hued corduroy number he wore to his swearing-in, which, to this day, is known in certain circles as a “Harvey Milk suit”). Milk also, he notes, picked up at least half a dozen votes that day among the store’s sales staff.

Milk wasn’t a traditional mayoral candidate. He wouldn’t beg for funding and swear fealty to downtown oligarchs: the stock brokerages, the real estate firms, the Standard Oils, the Pacific Telephone and Telegraphs, the Crown-Zellerbachs. A recitation of these names in the present day induces Milk to dismissively wave his hand. (Sadly, it’s his coffee-cup-holding hand; Buddy the dog, nestled between Milk’s legs, receives the brunt of the splatter and darts off, and a two-man cleanup job ensues. “Now, where were we?” he continues. “Oh yeah. Runnin’ for mayor.”)

A great deal of his money came from out-of-town gay and left-leaning individuals sending their checks to a man perceived as a burgeoning national leader in the civil rights movement. And that came out of Milk’s kamikaze run for president in 1980, a semi-serious endeavor in which Milk offered himself up as a “vessel for gay liberation.” The press corps didn’t take him quite as seriously as they took, say, Rep. John Anderson. But the quixotic run introduced Milk to legions of check-writing supporters, gay and straight, who bolstered the standing army he was amassing back in San Francisco. Milk, we’re told, first revealed this whim to run for president to a reporter friend on November 23, 1978. Four days later, Dan White would attempt to murder him. (“Timin’, timin’, timin’.”)

So, national fame firmly in hand, Milk’s march to reelection as district supervisor and, soon enough, City Hall’s Room 200 became a parade. He had the gay vote locked down, naturally. But he also had a rapport with seniors. (His staff was never short of homemade cookies baked by a grandmotherly supporter for her “little Jewish boy.”) While a supervisor, Milk was evicted from his camera shop and had his car repossessed; he knew what it was to struggle financially, and this resonated with the city’s renters (he was one then) and middle-class families (he aspired to be part of one). The union support he first garnered during the Coors boycott of ’77 only grew. And, of course, he had his détente with the Brown-Burton machine. Milk’s career was premised on fighting the system, but he knew how to make alliances, flit around the periphery of everyone else’s group photos, and work within it, too. 

He also had a commodity that every politician needs: good luck. In ’83 he was running in an open mayoral race, not against an incumbent—four years earlier, Moscone had staved off Quentin Kopp in a slugfest in which his ties to Jim Jones and opposition to Proposition 13 nearly sank him. The tales from Milk and his staff and volunteers of those days in ’83 and the swearing-in bash of ’84 are hard to elucidate for any San Franciscan who wasn’t here at the time. It was an era of unbridled optimism and hope and idealism; a time when a man with holes in his pockets could take on the city’s deepest pockets. Milk was the glue holding together a tenuous alliance. He seemed ready to take on the world.

But the world was not ready to concede. And it would hit back. Hard.

When you stand
at 16th and Noe with Harvey Milk and Buddy the dog, you attract a crowd. Men—and it is usually men—decamp from moving cars or rapidly descend the fire escapes precariously affixed to apartment towers to shake Milk’s hand and snap an obligatory selfie.

Step away a few meters and close your eyes, and the affordable housing project and the leather bar and the greasy spoon and the check-cashing joint, the street hustlers, the guy selling something out of the trunk of his Toyota Tercel—they all disappear. The din of the traffic and shoppers and well-wishers fades into a background hum and, in the end, all you can hear are the birds. All you can smell are the flowers.

The number of dead men carted out of this neighborhood 30 years ago recalled a Belgian battlefield. Time may or may not heal all wounds, but nothing can undo the pain of the moment. And the experience of that pain changes whatever comes after. There is ever so much scar tissue woven into the corpus of San Francisco.

Mayor Harvey Milk could not solve the world’s AIDS crisis. And, for that matter, he couldn’t solve America’s homelessness crisis. He couldn’t foresee the influxes of international capital from Hong Kong inundating San Francisco, or Prop. 13 pillaging the cities of California, or young people reversing the patterns of white flight to repopulate the nation’s downtowns, or an earthquake crippling the city. But he did, in the end, help people. They stop him on the streets and weep as they tell him so. The steps this city took in the 1980s to protect men kicked to the curb and stripped of their worldly possessions by their deceased partners’ homophobic next of kin have been credited with germinating the movement for same-sex marriage. You may recall Mayor Milk lambasting the apparatchiks of the Reagan administration over their neglect and mockery of the AIDS epidemic. This was, assuredly, Milk at his best: an effective, disarming beacon of common decency. Thanks to Milk, money and attention that otherwise might have taken years to obtain were secured. It’s hard to argue that lives weren’t saved.

Milk’s supporters can similarly lionize the anti-eviction, anti-speculation, and rent control provisions he pushed, the diverse and liberal commissioners he appointed, and the reforms of the city’s reactionary police department initiated under Moscone and continued under Milk. But life isn’t as neat as the history books present it. The constant political gamesmanship—Bathhouses: Open or closed? (Open.) Freeways: Rebuilt or demolished? (Demolished.) Ballparks: Publicly financed or tell ’em goodbye? (Going, going, gone.) Downtown: Short or tall? (Not tall.)—was a grind. Milk’s magnetism held together an unlikely array of special interests and voters for what was, in retrospect, an inordinately long run. But nothing in San Francisco lasts forever.

Shortly after Milk was voted into office in 1977, a group of his supporters gathered for a rap session in the back of his camera shop. At one point, the notion of supporting a fellow neighborhood activist was nixed because the man was deemed “mentally imbalanced.” This provoked an unexpected response from Milk: He exclaimed, “I’m balanced?” and proceeded to laugh so hard he slid off the couch and onto the floor, as onlookers gaped at their prone supervisor-to-be.

Milk was always ready to slide off the couch. The job wore at him, and, as progressive coalitions are wont to do, his collapsed under its own weight. By the time his second term was up in 1992, Milk, then 61, was ready to join Moscone—then serving as National Basketball Association commissioner, a job he’d long coveted—in private life. The commercials featuring Earvin “Magic” Johnson, probably the first straight male sporting superstar to come out as HIV-positive, and Milk, the first major U.S. politician to do the same, seem cheesy in retrospect. (The synth beats and badly delivered line “Stay negative. Be positive” did not age well, nor did the scenes of an obvious Milk stunt double dunking a basketball.) But at the time, it was a groundbreaking act by two men who didn’t expect to long outlive the 1990s.

But survive they both did. Milk, of course, founded his eponymous foundation. He returned to his youthful roots and produced a few Broadway shows (most notably the revival of The Boys in the Band). He penned an opera column for the Chronicle. He served as community liaison for his successor, Mayor Brown, who happens to call during our interview. (The display on Milk’s phone reads “Moonbeam”; “How’s it goin’, Jerry?” he asks. Twenty minutes of nodding ensues.) Most of all, Milk lived the life of a national gay icon—a life, he’ll be the first to admit, that has been easier than being mayor of a city with myriad needs, and where too much is never enough.

They don’t talk much about
Dianne Feinstein anymore. But they could. City Hall staffers tell us that, on the same morning that a pistol-packing Dan White was heading downtown, Supervisor Feinstein—who had finished a disappointing third in two mayoral runs—informed the press corps that she would decamp from city government at the end of her term in 1982. And that happened. But if White had succeeded, Feinstein would have been mayor (and, presumably, not our ambassador to Nepal), and, just like that, San Francisco’s liberal chief executive and most populist supervisor would have been replaced by a business-friendly, pro-police mayor and, possibly, the return of a downtown-friendly citywide Board of Supervisors. How that San Francisco government would have reacted to the vast wealth that would inundate the region and the mixed blessing it would deliver is a mystery. It’s hard not to imagine a far greater emphasis on making San Francisco a destination for international business and investment, and many more gleaming glass towers dotting downtown and SoMa.

But as it was, the Downtown Plan eventually codified under Moscone and Milk gave a great deal of deference to the forces that had for years railed against this city’s “Manhattan-ization.” These people were tapped for the Planning Commission, no less. The results are all around you—quite literally. They’re the weed-choked rocky outcroppings and aging low-rises where, once, hungry developers saw nothing but dollar signs.

You can, with the help of the telescope Milk swears is only for stargazing, view the developers’ consolation prizes from his Corona Heights abode. Past the canals of Mission Bay—which appeared graceful and majestic in I.M. Pei’s initial renderings but today serve as a fetid sneak peek of sea level rise—and beyond the deteriorating industrial buildings and illegal artists’ flops and over the bay: There they are. The forest of new office buildings and UC San Francisco’s sprawling Alameda campus that, in a more welcoming climate in San Francisco, might well have been built here. 

Yes, the office boom—and the jobs and the revenue and the tax base that would have poured into San Francisco—was dispersed around the region instead of reconfiguring the city. That’s something to think about when it takes nine hours for a baby-blue Police Services car to show up after you call in someone taking a crowbar to your apartment door, or when everyone has to stumble off the jitney after it blows a tire in a pothole, or when it turns out that the local rec center has people living in the swimming pool. And yet, with iron-clad eviction protections and gold-standard rent control measures—and development partially driven to elsewhere in the region—this city has suffered less upheaval and displacement than it might have, and certainly less than other burgs, like Portland and Austin, that have so famously been homogenized by wealthy arrivistes.

On the other hand, this city, while a vibrant place, is also one that seems more intent on celebrating its past than on forging a new future. San Francisco, for forever it seems, has had a preserved-in-amber feel. But that’s the thing about being preserved in amber: At least you have a place to stay.

Milk didn’t expect
to stay around this long. He didn’t expect to be in the position to collect Social Security or walk with a stick—not a cane, a stick—or pay the 25-cent senior fare on Muni. But he does all of these things now.

After a rough-and-tumble decade and change in city politics and about as long atop his foundation, he’d hoped to go back to his original job, the one that didn’t pay: mayor of Castro Street.

Alas, he notes, he now lives in a different neighborhood. Milk also never expected to own land other than, say, a bag of sod from Cole Hardware or a plot small enough to accommodate a Monopoly hotel. But the unforeseen windfall of a mayoral salary—and the sickening benefit of being named in the wills of so many prematurely dead men—took him places he never anticipated. 

Milk is, however, a prime candidate for mayor of the 37 Corbett bus, which provides him with nearly door-to-door service from his present abode to his past stomping grounds in the Castro, and all for pocket change. On a recent Monday, after our conversation, Milk ambled into the fog and onto the bus and fed a pile of coins into the fare box—enough for him, Buddy, and, what the hell, whoever came next. Then he stuck his hand into his pocket. And then he waved.


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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