This unique bureaucrat

by Bruce Anderson

Way back, I had a very odd experience at San Francisco City Hall — beneath City Hall, to place the site exactly.

I was instructed to see a man about a foster home rate for some kids I was responsible for at the time. When I arrived for my appointment, I was directed to the basement elevator, and when I got to the basement I was told to descend another floor, by stairs that were only slightly more negotiable than a rope ladder would have been. 

There, to one side of a dirt floor strewn with planks, was a plywood door. Mr. So-and-So had his name plate fixed to the door by an oversized nail that obliterated the middle of his name.

I knocked.

“Enter,” a male voice said. I didn’t know if I should or not. It was positively spooky down there, and it was obvious to me that I was probably a rare visitor.

I pushed through the plywood to find a bright-eyed old boy staring back at me from a desk in the chaotic middle of mounds of file folders, a beatific smile on his face. He looked wholly deranged, but was quite friendly and as garrulous as any topside outpatient.

It was obvious I was his first visitor in many moons; maybe his first official visitor ever. We chatted for almost an hour about matters having nothing to do with my reason for being there.

My host asked me if seagulls could talk. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” I replied. “I talked to a crow once.”

He came right back with, “Oh yes, crows are very talkative.”

My open-mindedness on his zany comments seemed to please him, although I understood why the City kept him in the basement.

Finally, I told this unique bureaucrat why I had come. “Well, what do you think is fair compensation for the wonderful work you’re doing?” he asked with no hint of irony.

I named a figure.

He said, “Surely you need more than that.”

I knocked it up a couple of hundred bucks.

“That’s all?” he asked.

And that was it. I got the rate I asked for.

That was the long and short of the foster home rate-setting process for the City and County of San Francisco.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the state stepped in to establish a more or less orderly rate-setting system; before that millions were allocated on the pick-a-number system, each county doling out the tax dollars any old way. And just as many millions were stolen, you can be sure of that.



  1. That was somethin' else, almost Dickensian! I'd love to learn more about this old fellow deep in the bowels of City Hall. But alas, that seems too buried in history by now.

    1. Oh, yay! I'm glad someone liked it as much as I did.

      If there's one thing I love but also hate, it's writing I wish I'd written.


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