The unexpected altar

Pub date October 9, 2007

This year’s SomArts’ Day of the Dead installation includes one very unexpected altar. Jack Davis has died, and the remembrances are flowing in from all over the city and the world.

Most people knew Jack as a pivotal contributor to every important cultural scene in San Francisco, whether established or underground. But this is not the Jack Davis that I knew. My Jack Davis was a neighbor, mentor, friend and my captain at the Mission Creek Harbor Association (MCHA), the community of boaters down by the ballpark. He was perhaps less famous than the bad-boy political consultant who shared his name, but he was my political consultant. He never saw me without giving me a recommendation for what the national Democrats ought to do to win an election or, more profoundly, to change our democracy for the better.

Jack was my mentor at MCHA; he was the president for many of my years of residence. He conducted our monthly governing town-hall meetings with respect, efficiency and effectiveness. He forged the kind of consensus where each contributing member believed the final product to be his or her own. He would always discern the essential, and intuitively lead to the right course. No important project at the creek was ever done without his vision and hand.

He taught me how to deal with bureaucracy, to go with the flow. The only way to fight the immovable objectifier is to make her right and then lead him in your direction. The world of permits and inspectors is best negotiated with a Jack-like attitude of making them understand that the way you want to do something is exactly what they insist you do, never fighting, always agreeing — and then doing what you want.

Three years ago, when the home I share with Sean and Jasper sank into the creek, Jack presided over the raising and the salvage from a chair he set up on the shore. Like the captain on the bridge, he sat for hours and considered angles and depths, changes over time. He offered, rejected, revised and reviewed strategies for bringing her up from the bottom, and devised the successful one. The night she was raised, his daughter Sara and her partner Shawn bought over a vase of flowers, a ray of hope and beauty in the midst of all the destruction. Then on Sunday, Jack organized the cleanup and salvage of what was left of our belongings, an effort that my depression would never have let me put together.

It was that day he taught me how to teach. First you do a thing yourself. Then you figure out how to do it best. Finally, you show the way to someone else.

Once, I asked Jack for a recommendation for a small public address system that I wanted to buy. Two days later a set of web addresses arrived by e-mail with comments about each of three appropriate possibilities and two days after that, I was driven to Hayward for a demonstration and analysis of the unit he thought was best. Jack was a master of advice; somehow I thought I had made the decision.

Architect, designer, builder or consultant on many of the homes floating in Mission Creek, Jack moved into his last project just a few months ago. With his family, he built a boat that would house three generations on three levels. Like so much of his life, his home was a work in progress; the living was the finishing. In a day where the young move away from the old, Jack, Sara, Shawn, Olivia and Arthur formed a very traditional family unit with a very modern cast.

Jack was a classical renaissance man with his feet firmly planted in the future. He was an unsung hero of his many worlds. To paraphrase Malherbe, in his honor will the angels stand.

Philip De Andrade owns Goat Hill Pizza in Potrero Hill and is a longtime small-business and neighborhood activist.