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Yammer #8


In erstwhile fields
the houses grow
between the freeways,
row on row.


Yini Yohans




Personal accounts

july 10, 2000. The place that the Call calls home is filled these days with the scent of orange blossoms. As Number One Son weds his Lily Belle, thoughts easily turn to personal relationships. SPUR’s Jim Chappell speaks eloquently of the elements that make up a city: "that human interaction with others that occurs in the public realm — our sidewalks, our plazas, our parks, our universities, our theaters, and even Pacific Bell Park." But underneath lies a private realm where dreams are born and die, where the public realm takes shape. It is here that a city’s defining myths come into being, endowing it with the characteristics that set it apart from all others. In the present matrimonial context, one bears retelling.

In the early 1930s a fiery young attorney was a common figure in San Francisco’s courtrooms and on the front pages of its newspapers. "The Mastodon" waded into battle with verbal banners flying, often quite literally knocking down opponents foolhardy enough to get in his way. One of his sons later said, "Being a lawyer was the defining truth of his life. Not the law in the abstract, mind you, but the roar of courtroom battle." At a time when the courts were dominated by the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Market Street Railway Company, and their allies in the insurance companies and City Hall, the Mastodon waged war against them all. Not surprisingly, judges hated his rowdy courtroom manners and his extracurricular crusades, and contempt of court citations abounded. A smiling Irish face, framed by prison bars, became a familiar sight for Chronicle readers. In September 1932 alone, he managed to get hauled off twice to the city jail.

But every beast should have his beauty. The Mastodon met a striking Irish-Italian woman with brown hair and hazel eyes, with a love for living at "the edge of danger" that matched his own. In childhood, it was she who led the neighborhood kids into daring leaps from an abandoned railroad trestle. It was she who could hurtle herself from a bicycle traveling at full speed. And it was she, as an adult, who eluded police surveillance by climbing through a bathroom window when her beloved beast needed her assistance.

From their first blind date, they two rarely spend a day apart. Nevertheless, the course of this true love was bumpy at first. She was young and somewhat giddy, delighting in wild parties that offended his somewhat cynical sense of human values. His worldview had taken form after years of serious reading, while hers reflected an extensive journey through the world of novels. But even once those minor shoals were traversed, two large boulders remained: the Mastodon didn’t want to get married, and he certainly didn’t want to bring children into a world dominated by "poverty, disease, war, and ignorance." She pleaded her case. He put her off: "Why should we spoil an ideal friendship by getting married?"

In the end, the beauty employed a time-old feminine tactic — she played him like a puppy with a ball. Pleading family illness, she went to Los Angeles with her mother, leaving her stubborn swain bereft of her company for a week. On her return — as she tells it — the two fell into each other’s arms. He proposed at the steamer pier. The next day, a Friday, they eloped to Reno. But as they departed — as the Chronicle tells it — he promised a hasty return: "We’ll have to come back Sunday night so I can go to jail Monday morning" to serve a long-delayed contempt sentence.

The Mastodon and his bride lived a long and prosperous life. Over the years, they stood shoulder to shoulder, challenging evil and crusading for justice, with the beauty adding her own time in jail to that of her husband. After his final stay, in the maximum security prison on McNeil Island, the beast later recalled, "I stood on the boat watching the grim citadel, a monument to man's inhumanity to man, receding in the morning mist as I moved toward freedom. ‘At least, you son of a bitch,’ I thought, ‘you're a better place because I went through you.’ I hope I can say the same thing as I depart this world."

Fact? Fiction? Probably a bit of both, for such are the makings of myths. The story continues in Vivian Hallinan’s "My Wild Irish Rogues." In true storybook fashion, the couple produced six sons, fighters to a man. One is the present embattled and battling district attorney for the City of San Francisco.