February 12, 2003
It's funny in Kansas
Arts and Entertainment
Looking for Hugh
The strange, sad disappearance of an activist.
A LITTLE OVER a year ago, a despondent San Franciscan named Hugh Erik Mejia mailed three identical letters to three friends, telling them he'd soon be dead. He wrote, "If within 24 hours of receiving this document, you haven't been notified by the 'authorities' of my death, you may proceed to initiate the search for my remains and contact them. In all probability, my remains will be found in the S.F. financial district, the S.F. bay, or on the coastal areas of Marin, San Francisco, or San Mateo counties."
Also included with the letters were copies of a self-penned, three-paragraph obituary and an assortment of photocopied documents: birth certificate, high school diploma, and membership cards for Mensa (the society of people with high IQs) and the Industrial Workers of the World (a tiny, militant trade union).
The friends steeled themselves for the worst. It never came.
They contacted the coroner's office. No Hugh Mejia and the only John Doe in the morgue was an elderly Asian man who'd been discovered in Golden Gate Park. Searching Mejia's cramped Tenderloin studio, they found the effluvia of a life stacks of videotapes, piles of books, thrift-store clothes, pages of complex mathematical formulas, a photo of Malcolm X meeting Fidel Castro but no corpse. Holding out hope that Mejia might be alive, they photocopied missing-person posters and taped them up all over the city. Nobody called.
His five-foot-five-inch, 120-pound body has never materialized.
For those close to the 38-year-old, most of them fellow travelers in the radical political scene, his disappearance in January 2002 is an enduring mystery and a source of more than a little anguish. "Maybe he is alive," says Clare Bayard, one of Mejia's closest confidants. "Who fucking knows? How fucking passive-aggressive is it to leave a note that says, 'Look for my body to wash up on this shore or that shore.' " The fact that he publicly announced plans for a "final exit" weeks before he disappeared makes the pain that much worse for his erstwhile comrades.
For me, Mejia was a source. I met him in the late 1990s, when I was writing a story about Food Not Bombs, the anarcho-pacifists who serve vegetable soup and day-old bagels to the dispossessed. A longtime member of the group, Mejia was a good interview, a quirky, cerebral character apt to draw connections between homelessness in downtown San Francisco, the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the news on page 16 of that day's London Financial Times. Of mixed Latino-Anglo ancestry, he had a shock of wavy coal black hair, a thin voice, and a serious, almost stern, demeanor. He was an avowed socialist "I'm the red sheep of the family," he'd say who believed in the need for a popular uprising in this country. For more than a decade, Mejia spent the bulk of his free time volunteering for the San Francisco Food Not Bombs chapter.
Despite an occasional quote in the newspapers, he wasn't a superhigh-profile figure in the activist world you wouldn't find him shouting into a bullhorn at a protest or sitting on a panel of lefty movers at New College of California. No, Mejia was more of a quiet, behind-the-scenes type. And when he went missing, few noticed. Aside from an obituary in the New Mission News, the local media, which have devoted a gazillion stories to two missing women from Modesto Laci Peterson and Chandra Levy didn't utter a word.
When I learned of his vanishing, I was stunned. How could a man who cared so profoundly for the wretched of the earth care so little for himself? Driven to pinpoint the forces that propelled him to his death or whatever I started hunting for clues. Some pieces of the puzzle were easily uncovered; others would prove elusive.
• • •
In many ways Mejia was a relic of San Francisco's pregentrification era, a time when boho misfits flocked here to live cheap and dream big. A Chicago native, he arrived in 1983 after dropping out of Purdue University, where he'd studied mathematics and engineering. He quickly found a job as a medical research subject, and while most human guinea pigs look at it as a temporary gig, a quick way to make money between jobs, Mejia made it a career. At San Francisco General Hospital, he became a legend, the Cal Ripken of research subjects, the guinea pig who outlasted all of the other guinea pigs.
Mejia was already a wily veteran when he encountered Kathleen Mulligan in 1991. "From my point of view, he was an ideal research subject because he knew the routine," recalls Mulligan, a researcher at UC San Francisco. "He could weigh himself, he could do a lot things himself one time I saw him taking his own blood!"
The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel profiled Mejia in a story titled "Menschenversuche: Reise ins Unbekannte" ("Human Testing: Journey into the Unknown"). A reporter for the mag followed him during a typical day at the office. Lying on an operating table at the hospital, Mejia looked relaxed as doctors affixed electrodes to his cranium, jabbed IV tubes into his arms, pushed a catheter into his heart, and finally, injected an experimental anesthetic. He made off with $800 for his trouble. "Others can only dream of an hourly wage like this," he told the journalist.
Mulligan portrays Mejia as a relentless autodidact who lugged sophisticated physics textbooks to the hospital for entertainment. "He was really interested in the science [of the experiments]. He'd query me, 'How can you be sure this is going to work?' or, 'Why didn't you design the study this way?' He was much more intellectually engaged than the other subjects," the scientist says.
Their decade-plus dialogue was fueled, in part, by parallel obsessions. She is a nutritionist and a student of human metabolism. Mulligan and her research team helped win Food and Drug Administration approval to treat HIV wasting syndrome with human growth hormone, which helps patients gain weight. According to friends, he was intrigued by macrolevel food policy questions, chief among them: Why are roughly 10 percent of American households too poor to adequately feed themselves?
Mejia himself was broke. Work for guinea pigs is sporadic, and no one can remember him clearing more than $9,000 annually. Still he managed to survive. The monthly rent on apartment No. 25 at 910 Geary, where he'd lived since 1984, was $272.29. He had no phone bills because he had no phone. To surf the Web, he logged on to one of the public terminals at the San Francisco Main Library or plopped down in front of an unused computer in the Coalition on Homelessness office, where several of his pals worked. Says Mulligan, "I can't think of anyone else I know who lived in a way that was so in tune with their politics. He put such a minimal strain on this earth and gave so much back. I so admired him for that. And it makes me really sad that that didn't give him enough satisfaction and joy."
Some of Mejia's friends fear the bleeding-edge chemicals he ingested as a guinea pig may have triggered his desperate emotional state. (Because of liability concerns and medical confidentiality rules, Mulligan and UCSF won't divulge what substances he was given.) "I don't know what the hell kind of chemicals they were putting in him," one says. Most in Mejia's circle, however, trace the origins of his descent to a more mundane source.
• • •
Mejia's occasional work schedule freed up plenty of time for activism. He was a constant presence during the great soup standoff of the 1990s. On one side were Mejia and the rest of the Food Not Bombs contingent, who served free meals to 100 or more down-and-outers at 5:30 p.m. every evening in Civic Center Plaza, directly across from City Hall. On the other was then-mayor Frank Jordan, a wooden conservative married to a wealthy investment banker. Jordan, a former police chief, seemed to view the mayoral chambers as a satellite office for the cops, and he wasn't fond of the hordes of modern-day Okies congregating just outside his window.
In late 1993, Jordan ordered the police to evict the outdoor soup kitchen on a trumped-up zoning violation. A navy blue phalanx of riot cops descended. When Food Not Bombs members refused to quit doling out grub, an epic conflict ensued. Every evening the FNBers would show up with plastic buckets full of soup and rice; every evening they'd be jailed. Between 1993 and 1996 more than 600 FNB supporters were arrested, 11 of the group's vehicles were impounded, more than 20 people were prosecuted on felony charges, at least one person got a 60-day jail sentence and liberal San Francisco was dinged in the international press for its Rambo approach to the situation.
Sure, Mejia and company could've secured an indoor space somewhere and quietly continued their mission, but that wasn't the point. Making poverty visible was (and remains) central to the ideology of FNB, a ragtag, all-volunteer national network that began in the Boston area in 1980 as a spin-off of the No Nukes movement. The group, according to its statement of principles, calls attention to "society's failure to provide food and housing for each of its members, while at the same time handing out hundreds of billions of dollars in funding for unconscionable wars and state violence. Food Not Bombs is protest, not charity."
Equipped with a video camera, Mejia diligently chronicled the police-activist chaos as it unfolded day after day. "Hugh was meticulous about documentation," Coalition on Homelessness organizer James Tracy says. "He was never one to shy away from his self-identified role of monitoring the police, even when it seemed like great bodily harm could come to him. And he was there at every last rally and meeting." Mejia, former FNB cadre Chris Crass remembers, "was incredibly dedicated and was constantly doing work. He was really doing a lot in terms of trying to create publicity about what was going on in San Francisco the attacks on homeless people, the attacks on poor folks, the attacks on Food Not Bombs."
Mejia started lobbying Amnesty International to get involved. The result was a series of fairly scathing letters from the esteemed human rights organization to Arlo Smith, at that time San Francisco's top prosecutor. "Amnesty International is aware that Food Not Bombs members have been charged with criminal acts," wrote Javier Zuniga, chief of Amnesty's Americas section, in a 1994 letter. "However, we are disturbed at evidence suggesting that the law may have been used to harass and arrest these individuals because their beliefs and activities were unpopular with the City administration."
The hostilities cooled when Willie Brown was elected mayor at the close of 1995. Brown had campaigned on a promise to halt the crackdown, and in the eyes of many local political observers, Jordan's unpopular war on FNB had played a role in his downfall.
If Mejia was a cornerstone of the group in the early 1990s, by the waning years of the decade he was tearing it apart and showing outward signs of psychologically unraveling.
In 1997, Mejia built an alliance between FNB and Baladre, a small organization of Spanish leftists campaigning against the predations of big business and phony "free trade" pacts. He helped arrange an ambitious 59-date speaking tour for Baladre.
From the kickoff press conference at the Luggage Store, a Market Street art space, to the final gig, in Los Angeles, the tour was a logistical train wreck. Only a fraction of the proposed $22,000 budget was raised. A woman who'd offered to supply the tour vehicle, an old school bus, changed her mind at the last minute. Worst of all, the tour translator, a punk rocker from southern California, turned out to be incompetent, leaving the Spaniards nearly unable to communicate with their audiences.
Mejia blamed himself for the mess, but he also blamed another prominent FNB member. The dispute got ugly. Fittingly for an admirer of Vladimir Lenin, Mejia wanted the other guy purged from the group's ranks, which had dropped from a high of about 50 people to roughly a dozen. The grudge match dragged on for years. "Hugh just saw Food Not Bombs losing credibility as a result of this tour not working out," Crass says. "Everything got totally out of proportion. We're not talking about a huge event that changed the course of human history. We're talking about a tour that a few hundred people in the country went to."
Seeking to mend the rift, the group called in a professional mediator. There were three sessions, each roughly three hours long. It was no use. Mejia couldn't let go.
Known as something of a charming eccentric, Mejia gradually morphed into an erratic and abusive figure, estranging many of his colleagues who came to view him as a chronic pain in the ass. He severed ties with his parents and three or four friends (including Crass), nearly got into a fistfight with another FNBer, insisted on playing the Soviet national anthem on a boom box during group meetings, and continually circulated written proposals for expelling members who didn't live up to his standards. Meanwhile, he rarely managed to show up to help cook the day's free meal.
In the midst of this scene, sometime in 1999, Mejia and I got together for coffee. During our conversation he explained to me that nefarious forces within FNB were bent on destroying the organization. I've spent my life working for FNB, he said grimly, and now it's being wrecked.
To me, Mejia's anecdotes sounded like the petty squabbles all activist groups go through from time to time I couldn't figure out why he was so gloomy.
• • •
In retrospect, it's clear he was being consumed by something larger than his disdain for certain FNB members. Most of Mejia's friends agree he was gripped by undiagnosed mental illness; several believe it was clinical depression he sure didn't have a lot of "up" periods during the last years of his known life. Speculation about his internal demons tends to run along a few themes.
"I think it goes back to his family," says Kaye Griffin, who saw Mejia frequently in the weeks before he disappeared. "I think his problems with Food Not Bombs were an extension of his dysfunctional family life."
Seeking to follow that thread and gather more details about Mejia's childhood I twice phoned his parents, who live in San Francisco. They declined to speak to me.
At the Coalition on Homelessness, Tracy has another idea: "There are very acute mental illnesses that are specific to the activist scene. For one, you have a society that ridicules and marginalizes your vocation. And second, people who come in and are expecting change now or change today are in for a big disappointment. If you don't have the long view, you're going to be in a constant cycle of raising your hopes and having them beat down. It's very easy to get into the 'nothing changes' mentality."
Seeking the "long view," I look up a pair of veterans of the New Left, a movement that had its power-to-the-people aspirations crushed by the realities of the 1970s. "We gave lip service to Che saying, 'The personal is political,' " reflects movement lawyer Steve Bingham, who went underground for 13 years after being charged with trying to help George Jackson break out of San Quentin state prison. (He was eventually acquitted.) "But I'm not sure people knew what to do when there were real problems to deal with."
Mejia, who had no health insurance, certainly didn't know how to deal with his sense of despair. I can find no evidence that he received professional counseling or treatment for his psychological state at least not in his latter years.
His story immediately raises parallels for Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a writer and California State University, Hayward, professor who's been involved in radical politics for more than three decades. She quickly names two comrades who committed suicide and another who considered it. "There are quite a few who killed themselves in different ways. For me, I had a drinking problem," she says, adding that many of her contemporaries "didn't have inner lives."
For them, the Cause was everything. Perhaps that was part of Mejia's problem, as well. According to his friend Bayard, "He didn't have a conception of himself outside the group. It became a codependent relationship. He was really sensitive, hyperaware of all the bad stuff going on in the world, and extremely emotionally isolated."
On a certain level, who can blame Mejia for feeling disconsolate? The world truly is a fucked up place. Terrorist nut jobs are flying planes into lower Manhattan. George W. Bush and John Ashcroft are repealing the Constitution. India and Pakistan are threatening to obliterate one another with nuclear missiles. And here in our prosperous city, thousands of people are sleeping on the sidewalk every night. That depression could plague someone like Mejia, a man who spent his entire life waging a Sisyphean crusade for social justice, isn't at all hard to believe.
• • •
In the last days of 2001, Mejia began firing off ominous e-mails to the FNB listserv.
"I am planning to make my final exit by no later than Saturday 1, December," he wrote Nov. 7.
He followed up with a mass e-mail saying, "I would like to leave this organization and this world on good terms, and with a clear mind and heart."
The first of December came and went, and Mejia was still around. But he continued openly plotting his demise. "[T]his final exit on my part should be viewed as euthanasia, and not dismissed as just another suicide. I simply no longer have the emotional, psychic, financial, and material resources to live on this planet in its current state of decline. I have come to the conclusion that there is no future for me, or this planet," Mejia wrote Dec. 5.
He scheduled an "exit ceremony and wake," to be held on the grounds of the Exploratorium, and circulated a "preliminary draft" of his own obituary. In it he described himself as a foe of "poverty, hunger, homelessness, exploitation and militarism."
The e-mails met with a multitude of reactions. Some, like Bayard and Griffin, kept up a steady dialogue with Mejia, hoping to dissuade him. "I tried to get him talking about it as much as possible, because the more you talk about killing yourself, the less likely you are to actually do it," Griffin tells me.
Jeff Giaquinto, a substitute teacher and FNB member, hatched a different plan in early January 2002. After consulting a psychologist, Giaquinto intended to get Mejia involuntarily committed to the locked psychiatric wing of General Hospital. He laid a trap, inviting Mejia to his home, a run-down property in Hunters Point shared by a half-dozen dissidents. Giaquinto intended to call 911 when Mejia arrived at the house, which, ironically, was dubbed the "Asylum" by its inhabitants. He'd tell the cops and paramedics his friend was a danger to himself.
"I was really conflicted about [committing Mejia], especially because I was planning on doing it in such a dishonest way, but I needed to know that I had tried to do everything to save him," Giaquinto tells me.
Mejia, however, didn't show.
A few days later, on Jan. 31, the "I'm dead" letters arrived. No one has laid eyes on Mejia since.
Predictably, the people who loved him are grappling with an assortment of uncomfortable emotions. They replay old conversations over and over. They throw out words like guilt, anger, suffering, and closure. After wrestling with her conscience for the past year, Bayard acknowledges, "There is a sense of failure of what could I have said or done differently?" At the same time, she says, "It wasn't my place to force him to stay alive." Crass admits, "I still feel mad at him for not giving us any closure."
And there is a dimming hope that he is still alive, that he's gone into hiding, that he's pulled a perverse and monumental hoax. "Hugh always liked the big gesture, so I figured he'd stowed himself away in one of those human experimentation things he did," Tracy says. "I thought he'd just gotten himself into a really long medical study somewhere and pulled this prank on everyone. I still haven't resigned myself to the fact that he's dead, which is probably naive."
At the San Francisco Police Department's Missing Persons Unit, Angela Martin, the lead inspector on Mejia's case, is stumped. The bodies of people who leave suicide notes, she explains, are typically located pretty quickly. Martin tells me, "A search of his place, his effects, his everything, didn't lead us to any conclusions. And there's been no further clues."
• • •
The remnants of Mejia's life are stored at the Asylum, in an eight-by-eight room with a battered hardwood floor. His stuff is jammed into a brown metal four-drawer filing cabinet. A sticker that reads "MEDIA LIES, DEMOCRACY DIES" has been stuck to the side of the file cabinet.
Inside there are many press clippings, including an antiwar polemic that appeared in the British Guardian, and an Associated Press story in which a Nobel Prize-winning scientist talks about "global misery."
In the end, I can't say why Mejia abandoned his dream of helping to alleviate that misery or even if he did.
I hope he continues to walk this earth. I picture him secretly sneaking his way into another town or another country, reinventing himself, taking on a bogus name and new life story. Perhaps he's living in a tent in a Berber village in North Africa or tromping through the jungles of Colombia. It's doubtful, I know. It's more likely he hurled himself into the frigid waters that surround this city, that his small body was swept out into the Pacific by currents. But I have to hope.
So Hugh, if you're out there and you happen to read this, please come home. Or don't. If you're happier somewhere else, stay there. Just give us a sign. We miss you.
Translation assistance by David Moisl.
E-mail A.C. Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.