BOOK EXCERPT

"The Offer": A homeless Vietnam vet gets an unexpected second chance

In this excerpt from the oral history "Mayor of the Tenderloin," Del Seymour gets a chance to rebuild his life

By Alison Owings

Published November 28, 2021 12:00PM (EST)

Del Seymour (Photo courtesy of Maria Judice)
Del Seymour (Photo courtesy of Maria Judice)

"The Offer," an excerpt from Alison Owings' just-completed oral history, "Mayor of the Tenderloin," centers on Del Seymour, founder of Code Tenderloin, a free jobs readiness program in San Francisco. A veteran of the Vietnam War as well as the Los Angeles Fire Department and the IBEW electricians' union, Seymour later became addicted to crack cocaine, then became homeless. In "The Offer," he recounts an episode in the early 1990s when he got unexpected help to get his life back on track.

"OK, I'm in Sacramento. Homeless. There's a Stand Down." 

The military term means to give soldiers a break from battle. In 1988, Vietnam war veterans in Swords to Plowshares adopted the phrase Stand Down for a now nationwide project to help homeless or troubled soldiers. A homeless Viet vet himself, Del knew all about the project.  

"I'm pulling into the Stand Down, driving my shopping cart. Stand Down at the Boy Scout camp, on the bank of the Sacramento River. It's a crazy place, too, because of rattlesnakes. I'm walking in, wearing an old nasty pissy Army jacket. These guys are putting up the temporary lights they do at carnivals and stuff. A pickup truck parked there says International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. As I pass it by, I'm looking at these electrical workers of the union I used to be in. I make a comment to one of the guys. I'm drunk. I says," Del now shouts, "'Oh yeah! I used to be in that union.' The guy says, 'Well, what are you doing now?'

"'What am I doing now?' Fuck that. Can't you see what I'm doing now?' I took that as him already putting me down. It was confrontation." 

Instead, the man asked Del his name, pulled out a business card and handed it to him. "Said, 'Here. Come see me Monday morning. You know where the union hall is.'"

"I said, 'No, I don't know where no damn union hall is.' He said, 'Well, find out and come see me Monday morning.'"

Rather than respond or even read the card, Del turned his attention to more immediate matters. "My mind was on trying to get in line to get a meal and get me a bed. Because this was a three-day event. The next day, I'm hanging around. Some workers were still putting up the lights and the generators because we needed heat and everything. The union does this as a volunteer for the Stand Downs every year. I said, 'Hey! Remember when I came through there yesterday and this guy gave me a card?'

"They say, 'Yeah.'

"I said, 'Who is that guy I was talking to?' I hadn't even read the card. He says, 'That's Chuck Cake. He's president of the Union.'" (Actually, Cake was business manager of IBEW Sacramento Local 340, the No. 2 person in charge.)

The sentiment of the other men to Del was, absolutely, go see Cake. 

By Monday morning, when Stand Down at the Boy Scout camp ended, Del felt mixed emotions. He had learned Sacramento's IBEW union hall was some 10 miles away. "He told me to be there at seven o'clock in the morning. The Sacramento buses don't start till eight, for some stupid reason. I parked my shopping cart, started walking. The only way to get there at that time. I'm still dressed in the same pissy clothes I hadn't changed in weeks. I looked like the worst bum on the street. But I'm going out there to prove that this guy was bullshitting me like everyone else in life. Just to prove to myself there ain't good people in the world. Why am I in the situation I am if there are good people in the world? I needed to prove this to myself, another shit-talking official with a suit on. I've already made up my mind. Nobody going to tell me, 'Man, why don't you straighten up?' Here's this guy playing this game. I needed to have that in my ammunition when someone would say, Why don't you clean up? I won't clean up because somebody just going to bullshit me around."

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"I'm walking. You cross Highway 5 and you're round the hill. It's way out in the country. Then you got all of the Union Hall and it's a sit-alone gigantic building on several acres." The then new building was shared by IBEW and the Pipefitters Union. Del was exhausted, but his quest was not over. 

"There's a parking lot on the IBEW side with about a hundred slots and a hundred of them are filled. All brand new F-150, F-350 pickup trucks. With the ladder racks. All these are union guys out here to try to get a job because they only give out a certain amount of jobs every day." The lengths varied, Del knew. "They try to offer you short jobs, like a day job or two-day job. You'll take that and you go to the back of the book. You may lose a nine-month job or two-year job. Depending on how your finances are, if you're broke, you'll take that short job. But if you had enough sense to save up from working 80 hours a week last year, all that overtime, you need to save that money up so you can come back to be selective about the jobs you take."  

"But all these guys want to go to work today. This ain't no social club."

Somewhere along Del's long trek to the union hall, his mindset changed from defiance to hope. At the sight of the competition, though, hope slammed him in the face.

"I'm saying, 'This guy actually had the gall to have me come out here, and all these people with these brand new pickup trucks, dressed for work.' I've got tennis shoes on. All of them good, sharp, and had a good night's sleep, smell good, got cologne on. Here I am smelling like piss. Coming across the hill. I got as bent as I can get. I walked an hour and a half, two hours. Straight, at a hard pace.

"And I says, 'I fell for this shit. I can't believe, as sharp as I am, I fell for this bullshit. This guy was posturing and fucking with the people at the VA. 'Oh yeah, come see me!' I said, 'I can't believe I fell for this, man! I'm sharper than this! I knew better.' Because IBEW is a very racist racist union. They just started cleaning up now. I got into the union through a government discrimination lawsuit. The federal government sued IBEW, so I was one of the people they were forced to pick to train. One of the few African Americans nationwide. Because there were zero blacks in the IBEW." 

Del later said he became a union electrician in 1963, after the Department of Labor filed the lawsuit against IBEW's precursor, the Communications Workers of America (CWA). 

Knowing the union's history, as well as that Sacramento "had some racist parts of it," Del was convinced the business card man was conning him. 

"I'm terribly embarrassed because I look like a bum. A real bum. With a scraggly beard, all that. At that time I had hair and it was all kinky. So I'm going to walk down here, embarrassed as I am. People'll probably offer me a quarter and tell me to get out. Because I look like a homeless … not looked homeless, I was a homeless man," he now laughed, and said he had a few more minutes to talk before his weekly meeting with San Francisco's Mayor, Ed Lee, and various department heads about solving the city's homeless dilemma. 


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The interior of the union hall, Del recalled, was enormous, with huge windows, a seating area and glassed-in counters where hiring was done. "Everyone's sitting over here looking all bright and bushy-tailed and I slink in. At this point, I don't know why I'm doing this. Just so I could tell people how full of shit IBEW is. I needed to do this. I go to the window. The guys at the window, they're real hard-nosed guys. Because they deal with a whole bunch of people that want to go to work and they deal with them every day. And they're gods, they're prima donnas. They can talk to you however they want. You better kiss their ass because they could easily find a reason not to see you. They're like DMV workers. Where else would you go get a license? They know that. I already know that. So I go up, ready to be beat down because of who I look like and everything. I know ain't nobody going to know about anything. I said, 'Is Chuck Cake here?'"

Del yelled in imitation, "'No, he ain't here!'"

"I said, 'Oh. Well, you expect him?'"

Another yell. "'He's in New York. Be back next month.'"

"I said, Son of a bitch. Now I know it. Now it's confirmed. He got my ass. Son of a bitch. Man, how stupid I was to come all the way out here. I knew he was bullshitting me. He knew Friday he wasn't going to be here. You don't just go to New York. I've got all this stuff on my mind. And the guy says, `Who are you, anyway?'

"I says, 'My name is Del Seymour.'

"'Oh, Del! Man, don't let anyone see you, but go outside in the parking lot, come out in the back door.' I says, 'Oh-kayyy.'" Del drew out the word in the telling. "I leave the union hall and kind of slink around to the back door and come in. He says something like, 'I was hoping you would show up.' 

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"I said, 'And?'

"He says, 'You need to go to work? You got to be there in an hour.' 

"'Work!'

"'Yeah. Didn't Chuck tell you?' 

"I says, 'No. He told me to be here.' 

"He says, 'Well, yeah. He's got you a year-long job.'

"'What?!' I'm looking at these hundreds of people out here waiting to get what I got. Any one of them. He said, 'Go get your truck and pull around the back.'"

"I said, 'Truck!'" Del started laughing so hard recalling the moment, he pounded one foot on the floor. Bang! Bang! "'Truck!'" 

"The guy said, 'You don't have no truck?'

"I said, 'No.'

"He says, 'Son of a bitch! I'm going to have to drive you all the way to Folsom.'" The job included remodeling Folsom High School. "He says, 'Just go get your tools and meet me outside.'"

"'Tools!'" Del laughed again. 

"The guy said, 'Oh no. Don't tell me you don't have no tools.'"

"I said, 'No, man.'

"And he says, 'Man man. This is crazy.' He goes in the other room and comes out with like a $500 tool belt, with all the tools in it. He said, 'These are my tools. The first paycheck you get, you bring me my tools back.' He said, 'Let me go get my truck.'

"He took me out to Folsom High School and took me to the foreman, said, 'This is Del Seymour. He's one of Chuck's guys. Put him to work.' And he says, 'He lives in Sacramento somewhere. One of you guys take him every night and bring him back every morning. Get someone that lives around where he lives so he'll have a way to get back and forth.' And he said, 'Del, I want my tools back. You understand? Don't play with me.'" He added, in two weeks Del had to pay his dues.

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Del was sure the man earlier telephoned the foreman, who in turn informed the other people on the crew that Del was "one of the guys that Chuck rescued from the Stand Down, to give him a pass and help him out."

According to Chuck Cake decades later, IBEW took part in Sacramento's Stand Downs in 1992, 1993 and 1994. "I felt an immense sorrow for these people," he recalled in a telephone call. "They were homeless, had rotten teeth, and they needed so much help."

As Del was promised, at the end of his first day's work, a crew member drove him back to Sacramento. "I was staying on the streets. So I went back to my box."

In the morning, Del commuted from his box to work. Within the week, he was no longer homeless. "Union gives us the right to pull money from our employer within two or three days. So I got an advance and I got me a room. And I eventually got an apartment, with my girl." Her name was Sheila, he said, same as his later major love, Sheila, in San Francisco. "I remember that apartment, right down there by Sutter's Fort."

"That was it. I worked at Folsom High School for a year. Then I worked at Safeway. We did all the Safeway resets for a year." Again, a government directive was involved. "The federal government came out, says two wheelchairs have to pass in the aisle in any supermarket. So we had to do massive resets of supermarkets all over. Which may sound like nothing, but wires run every one of those counters. You got to move the counter over and then you got to remove the wire, cut into the concrete to replace the wire. Or the refrigeration lines. It's massive jobs. Multimillion dollar jobs in every store. We did the 'gay Safeway' on Church and Market [in the Castro District of San Francisco]. We did all the ones in Sacramento."

After finishing those jobs, what then?

Del was no longer in his exuberant storytelling mode. He spoke quietly. "I went back in addiction."                                   

Copyright 2021 Alison Owings. Used by permission. 


Alison Owings

Alison Owings is the author of "Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans," "Hey, Waitress! The USA from the Other Side of the Tray" and "Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich."

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