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Targeted in San Francisco:
California, What's the Matter withGeneral
© Jack Cashill
On a steamy morning this past July, I drove 200 miles south from San Francisco through California’s hot and unlovely Central Valley to visit a man whose handful of supporters call “Billy Budd.”
The analogy works but not perfectly. In the Melville story of the same name, the young American sailor Billy Budd is undone by his own innocence and condemned by a cold, blind justice. Steven Nary, the young American ex-sailor I was about to visit, was also undone by his own innocence but was condemned by a justice neither cold nor blind.
Nary resides within the walls of the cruelly named Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP) a few miles outside the squat, dusty town of Coalinga. This has been his home for most of the nearly twelve years he has been incarcerated.
While waiting to be processed, I asked one of the correctional officers how he liked the Coalinga area. “Hate it,” he shot back. His seemed to be the consensus opinion. Although the temperature climbed only into the mid-90’s the day I visited—a relief, apparently—the sky hung heavy and close, the smell of fertilizer inescapable.
In the last twenty-five years, the inmate population in California state prisons has increased an astonishing seven fold. Just about ten years old, PVSP already has twice the population it was built to contain.
The overcrowding causes problems, like the near constant rumbles between the prison’s various ethnic factions. The day before I arrived the skinheads had gotten into it with the Nortenos--American Hispanics from northern California. As a result, authorities had put this Hispanic faction and all whites in lockdown, a not at all unusual occurrence.
Had it not been for the intervention of the Catholic chaplain, I would not have gotten to see Nary at all. The chaplain used his good graces to get me through the yard and into Nary’s cell block, where Nary and his “cellie” were spending at least 23 hours a day in indefinite lockdown.
The officers in the cell block obliged us further by allowing Nary to leave his cell and meet me in the counselor’s office. Nary surprised me. I had imagined him as the gangly, pimply eighteen year-old of his 1996 mug shots. This impression had been reinforced by our correspondence: he writes with the openness and enthusiasm of an adolescent. I had thought of him and even referred to him as a “kid.”
When he emerged from the cell, however, he looked every bit a thirty year-old man and then some. He combs his graying hair back now. His acne has yielded to a rugged scarring. On greeting me, his face revealed not a flash of openness or enthusiasm.
This was understandable. The cell block’s once open center was crowded with bunk beds and restless with the heavily muscled cons who had made it theirs—all of them white, all in lockdown. No one smiles in this world. No one shakes hands.
At about 6-5, his frame filled out, Nary walked around the bunk beds—not even the guards cut through--with the quiet dignity and athletic grace one might expect of the prison’s best basketball player. Were he to wear a suit and walk down a city street, he would turn heads. Gary Cooper would play him in the movie.
It is highly unlikely, however, that anyone in California would dare make a movie of Nary’s life. That they would shy away from so compelling a story is one symptom of what’s the matter with California. That Nary has spent so much as a day in prison is a more ominous symbol still.
His undoing began on Saturday evening, March 23, 1996. That fateful night the18 year-old apprentice airman went looking for his regular carousing buddies on the U.S.S Carl Vinson, then berthed at the Alameda Naval Air Station across the bay from San Francisco. Two of his fellow sailors were on vacation, however, and two were on leave, so Nary decided to go in alone, the first time he had done so. Bad move.
As usual, Nary took the Alameda bus to the BART and the BART into San Francisco. From the Montgomery Street Station, he walked up towards the Palladium, a co-ed dance club nestled amidst the porn shops and strip joints in the city’s storied North Beach district.
San Francisco has been dazzling soldiers and sailors like Nary since the Gold Rush. Indeed, ministers were calling the city “Sodom by the Sea” even before that phrase implied a certain sexual proclivity—though that proclivity has been long and well represented.
As early as the Spanish American War, as AIDS historian Randy Shilts observed, “Resourceful gays staked out Market Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, as a cruising zone and there shopped among the always numerous sailors for satisfaction.”
Juan Pifarre, a 53-year old Argentina native, was one such shopper. He had started the evening at a friend’s house in the iconically gay Castro district where he and they had a few drinks.
Pifarre left his friends about 10 P.M. Sometime that evening he also did at least a few lines of cocaine. He then drove to that most of unlikely of places for a middle-aged gay man, the Palladium. He got settled in before Nary did.
Nary had stopped at a restaurant for some pizza and a pitcher of beer. He had only started drinking some months before, and the Palladium was notoriously tough on underage drinkers.
Although 6’ 4’’ and a high school basketball star, Nary had come to the Navy shy and virginal. Gloria Hernandez, his high school’s assistant principal, and Mark Morrison, its athletic director, both spoke of Nary as an easy-going, mild tempered kid, who got along with everyone at a school that was perhaps 2/3 Hispanic.
Cathedral City High school, by the way, is located on the world’s only street named in honor of Dinah Shore, just a few miles east of Palm Springs, California.
After eating, Nary ran into a Navy buddy, Chaylon Hoffman, on the long line outside the Palladium. Hoffman, who was over 21, suggested that the pair go to a nearby store and get some beer and this they did, a 40-ounce malt liquor for each.
The two young sailors walked around talking and drinking, finished their 40s, and bought two more. In their mindless wanderings, the pair ran into a bevy of girls outside of a restaurant and started chatting them up.
More than a little drunk, Nary dropped his half finished bottle, which brought the proprietor out to chase them off. Pissed, in both senses of the word, Hoffman threw his bottle into the restaurant and took off running. Nary followed in hot pursuit.
In their dash to freedom, the two young men got separated. Nary headed back to the Palladium where he figured he would find Hoffman. Not seeing Hoffman inside, Nary came back out to look and then went back in again.
He tried dancing but was still too unsteady so he sat down by himself and watched. After some time an older Hispanic gentleman with two young girls joined him at the table. A few minutes later the two girls left, and the man sidled over to Nary, now just drinking Cokes.
As Nary would testify at his trial, the man asked him a whole series of questions about himself, who he was, where he came from, and what he did.
Juan Pifarre was more than twice as old as the average patron at the Palladium. He was old enough to be the father of Nary’s mother. He also may have been the only guy there looking for other guys.
If sex or companionship were what he wanted, Lord knows there were a hundred other clubs in San Francisco that promised a dramatically safer and easier score than this one. Pifarre obviously wanted something more.
The girls Pifarre sat down with had put Nary at ease. He suspected nothing. After Pifarre and Nary got to talking, Nary mentioned that he had to leave to catch the last BART back to the ship. Pifarre offered him a ride.
“He seemed like a nice person,” Nary testified, “trusting person, and I’d get back to the base sooner.” Nary accepted the offer. It would be the last ride the lanky teenager would take as a free man.
Cashill’s newest book, What’s the Matter with California, is available in bookstores - or you can order your autographed copy online .
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