Has it really been ten years since this happened?! On December 31, 1999, I was arrested while scaling the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge with a backpack full of Martinis. And I don’t even like Martinis! Back by popular demand, here’s the story, as originally published in Twisted Times.
A True Crime Story
By Jack L. Lopes
There’s an old superstition that says whatever you’re doing at the stroke of Midnight on New Year’s Eve is what you’re going to be doing all year long. I sure hope it’s not true. At the cusp of the new Millennium, as the clocks chimed Y2K and another dead calendar page fluttered off into the void, seven friends and I were getting arrested for climbing the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Our plan to welcome the new century with an enviable view and a perfect martini did not come to pass. Instead, we became the last arrests of 1999 and the first police report of 2000. At the stroke of Midnight we were on a pier-side police barge, being searched and handcuffed while the fireworks went off around us.
It’s an odd and unlikely story that begins back in February of 1995, when my friend and fellow traveler Sebastian Melmoth suffered an unfortunate arrest on the Bay Bridge for drunk driving, and subsequently swore an oath that no liquor would touch his lips until the year 2000. His fierce will did not fail him, and he kept his promise to the end, but as the years went by he developed a powerful thirst.
A veteran urban adventurer and a connoisseur of the industrial arts, Melmoth has a particular fondness for bridges. He has climbed dozens of them, in this country and in Europe, and has introduced many enthusiasts to the pursuit. His first choice, and arguably the ideal spot to toast any new era, was the Golden Gate Bridge, but after actor-activist-moron Woody Harrelson and a few angry friends got arrested stringing propaganda banners from that span, the Bridge Authority went berserk on new security measures, welding access doors shut and installing surveillance cameras from top to bottom and end to end. By late 1999, Melmoth had settled on the idea of a Bay Bridge celebration, but he kept the final plans to himself, knowing he would have to pick just a handful of climbers from the army of friends and friends’ friends who had by now heard rumors of this unique New Year’s Eve celebration. I got the call a few days beforehand — one of the lucky few. There were to be eight of us, and two boats. We would meet in the city at 9:30.
In retrospect, I’m nearly certain it was a bad idea. To begin with, the authorities were in hyper alert for Y2K-related terrorism and civil unrest. All the law enforcement agencies had cancelled leaves, mobilized reserves, and put extra units in the field – 2,300 cops in all. Second, the City’s biggest public celebration was taking place along the Embarcadero, immediately to the north of our route, and the waters around the bridge were thick with small craft looking for a good spot to enjoy the fireworks. Third, the bridges were particularly sensitive that night, thanks to their high profile as terrorist targets and in anticipation of millennial jumpers. In fact, there had been rumors of closing both bridges for an hour at midnight, and the Golden Gate Bridge was indeed closed to pedestrians. In the clear vision of hindsight, it was probably a bad night for eight people in black clothing, several of them carrying backpacks, to go climbing.
On any other night it would have been a different story. Most of our group had scaled this magnificent structure before, most notably Melmoth, who with nearly 100 ascents over the past 20 years has to be considered an expert. My Lovely Wife had been to the top before, as had the Psychologist, the Carpenter, the Armorsmith, and the Crusader. Though it was to be my first time on the bridge, I am a reasonably experienced climber, and I was confident about the ascent. The only other green bean on our team, the Survival Researcher, was likewise no stranger to working in high places. We knew what we were doing, and we had done our homework. We knew there was risk involved, but it seemed manageable. So off we went.
Things started well enough. Everyone arrived on time, and we enjoyed a quick beer in a South of Market bar before setting out. A sympathetic bartender poured us a generous thermos-load of martinis, on the house. We also carried my Trav-L-Bar, stocked with drink fixings and stashed in a black backpack, a bag of ice in another backpack, and two sets of oars, which must have looked a little bizarre as we walked the five or six blocks down to the waterfront. We made it easily to the pier, though, and hunkered down in the shadows above the Bay for our approach. “Eight is a lucky number,” I observed, and everyone seemed to think that was pretty funny.
The first ill omen came when Melmoth went to check the boats he had stashed under the pier. A high tide had pushed them up into the pilings, sinking one and swamping the other. After a half-hour of work, we had a single vessel ready to go, and Melmoth started ferrying us out to the tower, one by one. When he started, there were no watercraft in our area, but we spotted several patrol boats further out in the Bay, and the sky was busy with helicopters. During the first few rowboat sorties we saw flashing blue lights on the far side of the bridge tower, and determined that a Coast Guard boat was dispersing a crowd of pleasure boats. Sure enough, a stream of yachtsmen started leaving that area, and many of them decided to relocate on our side of the bridge tower. Sebastian, caught in the open, had no choice but to hail the first few buckets of Coast Guard bait and act friendly.
When the entire team was at last assembled on the tower footing, we had a quick discussion of our situation. Our chief concern was the pleasure boaters who had seen us and might call us in. We agreed that it was a serious risk, and that we ought to wait 10 or 15 minutes to see if there was any police response. We reasoned that it would be slightly better to get caught on the footing rather than inside the tower, so we waited, but after 10 minutes with no flashing lights, we started our ascent.
The night was clear and cold, with enough moonlight to make flashlights unnecessary. Entering the tower was like walking into a forgotten temple, a soaring cathedral of steel built in a bygone era when iron was cheap and anything seemed possible. From this vantage point, crawling on it like a bug, the scale is nearly impossible to describe. I felt like a prankster Jonah in the belly of a great steel leviathan, dwarfed and humbled by its mighty bolts and oversized girders, all rising up to heaven out of the mud.
We were more than halfway up the tower but still below the road decks, steadily climbing the sharply-angled ladders that zig-zag up the inside of the tower, when we saw the flashing blues below. We took cover in sheltered positions and waited for a surreal quarter-hour as multiple searchlights from boats below and helicopters above scanned the bridge. It was like being the villain in an action movie; I half expected Arnold Schwarzenegger to drift by, dangling from a rope with a cigar clenched in his teeth.
We were out of sight but not out of mind. When it became obvious that the cops were not going to go away, and that their next tactical move would probably be to clear the structure, possibly with SWAT troops, Melmoth climbed back down to sea level and negotiated our surrender.
The first two officers on the scene were boat cops, on deployment from the Richmond PD. As soon as they determined that we were not armed, not dangerous, speaking English, and not even drunk, they were relaxed and congenial as they escorted us off the bridge and onto a waiting Coast Guard inflatable. One of them even thanked us for not making him climb up into the tower. “I hate ladders,” he said. “That’s why I joined the police instead of the fire department.” The boat cops handed us over to another boat full of cops, this one a gleaming new cruiser with SFPD markings, bought specifically for the occasion of policing the Y2K celebration. These boat cops were nearly as friendly, searching us only in the most perfunctory way. No one ever pointed a gun at us. For that matter they never read us our rights, nor told us with any certainty what we were to be charged with.
After an invigorating boat ride across the Bay (a $14 retail value), we were offloaded onto a barge adjacent to one of the temporary processing centers that had been set up to handle the imaginary hordes of anticipated Y2K arrests. It was as empty as a politician’s promise. Huge chain-link holding cells stood vacant in a pierside warehouse, while dozens of cops stood around drinking coffee and eating donuts. The air was rich with the smells of oiled leather and stale pastry. After a flurry of jurisdictional wrangling, we were handed over to three grim-faced junior troopers from the California Highway Patrol, herded into the back of a prison bus, and hauled off to CHP headquarters. The three women in our group were diverted to a separate compartment of the bus, a process the cops referred to as isolating the “X-Rays.” It took us a while to figure out that this was cop slang for the fair sex, as in X chromosomes. The ride took a long time, owing to the fact that the Embarcadero was closed to auto traffic. Two members of our party easily slipped the bonds of their plastic cable-tie handcuffs, while the rest of us went numb in the fingers because ours were cranked down too tight. Melmoth, bladder near bursting, openly contemplated pissing himself as an act of protest, but ended up crab-walking under escort to a portable toilet when at last we arrived.
In the CHP briefing room, still cuffed, we spent a chaotic hour as four troopers and a cast of extras attempted to process the biggest bust of the night. The only reason we were there at all was that the bridge, being state property, was determined to be in their jurisdiction. When we tallied it up later, we reckoned that our arrest had drawn on the resources of at least six agencies: Coast Guard, SFPD, Richmond PD, Oakland PD, CHP, and the Sheriff’s Department. Levels of professionalism varied widely, running the gamut from “Fair” to “Poor” to “CHP.”
Two of the troopers, a depressed-looking blonde in her early 30’s and a wise-cracking young Filipino-American, seemed competent enough in a sleepy way, but their attempts to get us processed were complicated by a parade of half-wits who kept mucking up the works. The worst was a young thug who had been with us since the barge, and had already taught us volumes about the sorry state of law enforcement recruiting. He was a narrow-eyed 22-year-old wifebeater with an inferiority complex and a neo-Nazi haircut, the kind of slim dick who gets pissed on a lot in high school, then spends the rest of his life in an armed revenge fantasy. He had a sticker affixed to the back of his clipboard – and I am not making this up – that said, “LOOK AT ME WHEN I’M HITTING YOU.” Even the other cops seemed to loathe him. He did not think we were even slightly funny, and made a big show of re-searching everyone, taking down our names and addresses for a fourth time, and going through all the property and evidence yet again. He cut my cuffs to get me out of my wristwatch and wedding ring, then trussed me up in a new set that were even tighter than the first. He confiscated my cuff links, my bow tie and cummerbund, even the studs on my shirt. I hated him instinctively, and to keep it out of my face I had to think back to my air force days, and the coping strategies they teach in their prison camp simulations. Innocence and sincerity, I reminded myself; and never let them see anything else.
You may have gathered by this point that I am not a career criminal. While my thirst for adventure may occasionally put me at some risk, I am not in the habit of getting caught. I spent a night in jail 20 years ago at language school, after sucking down too much Canadian Mist and losing my shoes, and from what I remember it was a cozy little sleepover with cushions and good heating, a room to myself and a chauffeured ride back to base in the morning in a squad car. In my teens I got rousted a few times by the hometown cops, and once got yanked from a car and shoved to the ground with a shotgun against my neck for smoking pot in the wrong parking lot, but in 40 years that’s the sum of my experience with the criminal justice system. If I were a poor man, or a colored man, it might be a different story, but I am neither. I am a well-paid white professional with a family, three cars, and a mortgage. The only cops I ever see are on the highway, or parked over at Giant Chef. So what the hell am I doing getting hauled off like a criminal? It’s a question that would offer itself many times over the next 14 hours, and not just in my own case. As a group we were altogether too old, too accomplished, and too diverse to fit any kind of criminal profile. Our actions threatened neither the community nor ourselves. Most of the cops we encountered seemed to grasp this instinctively, and just wanted to get rid of us, but we met a few dangerous freaks like Trooper Wifebeater who simply enjoyed being a cop, and didn’t give a damn who we were or how we had arrived in his jurisdiction.
When the ChiPs had finally had their way with us, they drove us over to the County Jail and handed us over to the Sheriffs. Our plastic cuffs were removed, and after another brief run of paperwork, we were again sorted by sex and escorted to holding cells. The steel doors clanged shut with a hollow boom, just like in the movies, and there we were: Behind Bars.
I suppose if you’re going to spend the night in a drunk tank, it might as well be in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. That being said, the experience never quite lived down to my expectations. I’m sure it would have been a lot more fun if I had been drunk. God certainly loves a drunk and looks after him, even in the slam. We met quite a few of them that night, and they ran the spectrum from ridiculous to pathetic to scary.
Of course one of the truisms of incarceration is that in jail, every man is innocent, so naturally none of these human accidents had done anything wrong. The guys who got arrested for fighting were all misunderstood Samaritans, regular upright citizens who had been trying to break up a disturbance. There were drunks who swore they’d never touched a drop in their lives, and one jabbering speed freak who claimed not only to be clean and sober, but an off-duty Oakland cop. “Wait’ll my Captain finds out about this,” he announced, fuming. “We’ll have some badges here. We’ll have some ass here.” He was a young guy named Singh with a ghetto accent, and he was as high as the Hubble telescope. Over the course of the evening he also claimed to be a high-priced computer consultant, a martial arts expert, and the owner of a 600-horsepower Chevy Suburban. He came in with a friend named Manny, a garrulous little Puerto Rican tweaker dressed from head to toe in white, like one of those Mexican Red Cross solicitors. He said he was wearing white because his saintly mother demanded it, because of their religion, and that he was both a computer consultant and a special combat instructor for the Oakland PD. They had been arrested trying to break up a fight. Neither of them ever shut up, but it was okay because they were enormously entertaining. It wasn’t like I was going to go to sleep. The authorities kept telling us we were going to be cited and released, and it kept not happening. Deputies kept coming up to our glass door and looking at us like we were tropical fish. They would pull out the stack of picture cards bearing our mug shots, rifle through them like they were looking for someone to release, and then put the whole pile back in its rack and walk away. This must have happened fifty times.
Around seven in the morning they released all the drunks who could stand up and say their names. Several of the guys who had arrived unconscious had stayed that way all night, including one scary fucker who curled up like a rat around a bench leg, snoring in tongues and farting like a poisoned camel. Even asleep, he made a ruckus that could stop conversation. He was a borderline DT case, and if you had bet me ten bucks when they dragged him in that he would be dead by morning, I wouldn’t have taken it. But ten minutes before the big release he woke up, threw up, and went strolling out the door the instant they called his name, no doubt flying off like a homing pigeon to some freshly hosed barstool. Likewise Manny and Singh, and the Irish guy with the cauliflower nose and the skinned knuckles, and the Aussie kid who kept saying “They arrest you here for getting pissed? In Australia they make you fucking president,” and even the sullen guy in the blood-stained tux who had called his girlfriend forty times over the course of the night, heaping abuse on her because she wouldn’t come get him. They all left and we stayed.
They let the lady bridge climbers go at 7:00 AM as well, but for no particular reason they kept us menfolk locked up for another seven hours. The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department is clearly the Muni of law enforcement. Even though they were fully staffed, and no doubt ringing up some serious overtime, nothing ever happened any faster than it had to, or with more than the barest minimum of effort. I’ve seen sleepwalking bureaucrats before, but there was a cloud of z’s in this place thick enough to choke even the hardiest go-getter. There was no bail or any of that; we were eventually cited for misdemeanor trespassing and prohibited entry into a non-public vehicle crossing, then released on our own recognizance.
If that sounds like an anticlimax, our attorney later whittled it down to a virtual non-event. The net-net of it turned out to be 20 hours of community service per person, and no record. And if you’re hoping to see me in an orange vest on the side of the freeway, don’t hold your breath – I’m doing my volunteer time with a community arts organization, under the direction of a friend who happens to be missing a small rowboat. While my crime certainly didn’t pay, neither did it end up costing me a hell of a lot. So what, if anything, have I learned from my misadventure?
I’d be a liar if I said I’d never do it again. Trying to live without breaking any rules is a fool’s errand, sure to crush a man before it kills him. If a so-called crime harms no one and damages nothing, then it’s not really a crime, and everyone with any sense knows this intuitively whether they admit it or not. I’ll not set off lightly, and I’ll take every precaution against getting caught, but when the rare opportunity affords itself to enjoy a cocktail on a landmark bridge, or for that matter to play moonlight golf on an army base, hunt station wagons in the desert, climb billboards, shoot propane skeet, run amok in a Santa suit, or go spelunking in abandoned buildings, the mere risk of capture will not likely be enough to keep me home on the couch.
That being said, my Y2K experience did in fact teach me several important lessons, and reiterated with blunt force a few that I already knew and took for granted.
1. Don’t be a wise ass. If you’re getting arrested as part of a political act, then by all means exercise non-violent resistance. Link arms and go limp, make up fake names, whatever. But if you’re doing something that’s only marginally illegal to begin with, and doing it for no other reason than to add a little zing to an otherwise stultifying existence, it makes sense to move things along just about as quickly as you are able, with an eye toward getting freed. Look at it from the cop’s perspective: as soon as you stop being a threat, you are simply freight to be moved. Make it immediately clear that you are not a threat, and do everything within reason to assist in the speedy, efficient hauling of your carcass to a cell with a telephone.
2. Be careful what you carry. If you know you’re going into a situation where you might be stopped and questioned, you owe it to yourself and your companions to go in clean. If you have any outstanding warrants, traffic or otherwise, stay home. Take your ID with you, and leave anything illegal behind. If you’re a serious loadie, you might want to have a friend search you, just in case you missed a roach or something. Don’t pout – you can always twist one later, after the action is complete.
3. Remember you’re innocent. Be cooperative, be respectful, but don’t volunteer information, and don’t start making up stories. Never forget that anything you say can be used against you (whether they tell you so or not), and that jail cells are full of hungry ears. Act like an upright citizen and a taxpayer even if you’re not. Ask your captors lots of questions about what’s happening – always in a professional, respectful demeanor. Avoid anger and other signs of weakness. Remember: a righteous man does not belong in jail.
4. Find a lawyer before you need one. I learned this the hard way, but now I know better. Look for one who’s a freak like you, and maybe go propane hunting together to see how he deals with stress. If he passes, memorize his phone number.
5. Take the sack lunch, even if you’re not hungry. You may be hungry later, and the defining torture of the holding cell is that you never really know how long you’ll be staying. Even if you can’t stomach the chow, there’s probably some water or juice in there that will save you from having to drink out of that spooky faucet sticking out of the back of the communal toilet.
6. Don’t be poor. Sure, it’s obvious, but I can’t think of a better reason to yank on those Yankee bootstraps and get to upwardly mobilizing. You don’t have to spend a night in jail to appreciate the deep divide between poor and unpoor in this country, or to grasp the real impact of race and class on our justice system, but it sure helps. If you are poor, you are the System’s lifeblood. And the darker your skin, the more likely you are to be poor. It sucks, but there you have it. The American Dream may be a longshot, but getting an education and moving up the food chain carries shorter odds than trying to change the System.
7. DON’T GET CAUGHT. The only unbendable rule in the trickster’s supple rulebook, and the last one you ever want to forget. Just as a red light loses its authority on an empty street at 3 AM, so does a victimless misdemeanor fade into nothingness when it goes undetected. Plan for success, and visualize not getting caught. It may not always work, but it beats all the alternatives.
Jack L. Lopes (a.k.a. Ernesto Vipers, a.k.a. Stuart Mangrum, a.k.a. Lloyd Void, et al) is so deep in the San Francisco underground that his beard sprouts mushrooms. A suspected member of the Cacophony Society and a known smoker, he is Publisher Emeritus of the Black Rock Gazette, and has served at various times as radio commentator, quiz show host, motivational speaker, Internet consultant, brewmaster, and cryptologist. He edited and published the ‘zine Twisted Times from 1991-1996.