The Real Streets of San Francisco

My mother, Nurse Vivian, wanted me to be an accountant, but since I refused to take any courses involving mathematics when I was in college, that outcome seemed unlikely. In 1991, I took a workshop with Dorothy Allison, who wrote “Bastard Out of Carolina,” and she gave me advice about my writing: Tell my story, warts and all. She also gave me advice about life: Get a civil service job, where I won’t really care about the outcome.


Tired of selling women’s leather accessories at Neiman Marcus, I went to 44 Gough St., where the city posted its job openings. Having a liberal arts degree and poor typing skills meant I had few to no qualifications, and so I found myself eligible to apply for few jobs other than Deputy Sheriff I. Thus I went from handbags to handcuffs.

I had never watched “Starsky & Hutch” or “The Streets of San Francisco,” although I did watch “The Andy Griffith Show.” It came as a real surprise to me that law enforcement is an honorable profession. It is a brother/sisterhood wherein most of us believe we can make the world a little better. The police and the deputies of San Francisco all wear a seven-pointed star because it represents the seven virtues we fight for.

(The pagans also called the seven-pointed star, or heptagram, the fairy star. This, by the way, is the true explanation of my tattoo.)

But confused with this nobility is that underneath the badge, we are human. We make human choices every day. Some of those choices are born out of a generosity of spirit, and some are just plain meanness.

The star does not make a person better. It’s a challenge to a higher calling, and every peace officer sometimes succeeds, sometimes fails. The year that I was selected as Deputy Sheriff of the Year, I also got a “Needs Improvement” performance appraisal. I’d like to tell you I merited the former but not the latter, but the truth is I earned both.

The job is dangerous. This week, I detailed deputies to the funerals of three peace officers. All three died nobly and tragically, one of them having just returned from maternity leave.

It’s unlikely that an accountant will get shot just for wearing a suit and carrying a calculator, but it takes fortitude to walk into a locker room and put on this uniform. Every day, I wear a gun, but I remain wary of it, because it makes my choices, and the choices of others, a lot more dangerous.

Here is what makes me a better person: Every day, I take that uniform off and go home and cook dinner, whether that be roast pork or Hamburger Helper. Brian serves, and the four of us sit down, and hold hands and say grace. We toast “the best boys in the world” and then Zane asks me, “How was your day?” And I always want my son to be proud of the day I had.

Zane is a black teenager. He knows that prejudice exists, and sometimes it wears a badge. He knows that black men and white police officers have more of their fair share of contacts, and not all of them end well, for a variety of reasons on both sides. Yet he sees grace in what I do, that I am not always courageous, but I strive to be.

Zane trusts that I work to make the world a better and safer place. Sometimes that has meant calling out a fellow peace officer, but most of the time that has meant giving people the opportunity to become better.

Whenever one of my relatives asked my father, who lived in Florida, about me, he would say, “Kevin’s still in jail in California.” But the jail is not so bad a place. I’ve learned that sometimes people can change only when they go inside.

Nowadays, I look less like Barney Fife than I do Karl Malden, and so I make it a point to walk those streets of San Francisco. As I go from the Hall of Justice to City Hall, around Sixth and Mission, I run into a lot of people whom I’ve known, in and out of the facilities. I’ve never once unholstered my weapon. Sometimes they ask me for money. Sometimes they tell me that they are getting clean. Sometimes they tell me I was a part of their change. It humbles me.

And I cannot wait to go home and tell Zane.

Previously published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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