Mementos 5: Thank You Greta: On Music, Politics, Poetry and Relationships

Mementos 5: Thank You Greta: On Music, Politics, Poetry and Relationships

I’m looking again at this note, written August 4, 1991. Greta always told me, when I complimented her on it, that she got her handwriting, so clear, legible and (I thought) 19910804-letter-from-gretabeautiful from working at the library. I think this is the first time that she wrote me about the difficult relationship she had with Anna, our mother.  I’m sure it was the first time she confessed finally “growing up” and understanding what contribution Anna gave to her.  What a terrible time we children have with our parents!  Trying to break free and become ourselves without totally denying the gifts we’ve received, the legacies we bear.

I know it was a conversation we had on many occasions, Greta and I.  It was at times precipitated by my defending Anna’s memory from Greta’s husband, who never had much respect for her political opinions.  But often it came out of our discussions of music and the often-related hard time Greta had 19910804-letter-from-greta-1with Anna’s insistence that she was the next . . . Vladimir Horowitz or any other piano virtuoso you could name.  Hence the reference in the letter to Marian Anderson, the culture of music, and its death cultivated by piano lessons and, ultimately, Greta going to Yale Music School.  (The music school was almost a vocational school, not considered on a par with the rest of Yale in those days, the mid to late 1940s, so the school allowed women to matriculate.  The rest of Yale remained staunchly the preserve of the male of the species).  I remember Anna taking the child me through the Yale campus to hear Greta practicing on the great organ at Woolsey Hall, Anna with such pride.  Greta said Anna was not very happy to hear the news that she had quit piano as a major and instead opted for music history.

Greta was my first piano teacher too.  I’m not sure what convinced my mother that I had talent, but it certainly wasn’t talent.  While I loved listening to my sister play the “Moonlight Sonata,” I rebelled against the lessons (which my mother assumed was a “sibling thing.”)  So one of Greta’s fellow students was invited to challenge my recalcitrance;  and when that failed my mother found a music school that gave piano lessons for people who could afford very little — I’m remembering about $1.50 per lesson —  and finally, after not succeeding through that door, I started taking private lessons from a teacher at the school, on whom I confess I had a crush.  When even that could not get me to practice or take lessons seriously, I went to my mother and told her it was time to give up.  As far as virtuosi are concerned, Greta and I shared a common failure.

We also, as we grew together, apart, and together again, shared a common love of music that stemmed from our mother’s reverence for classical music (the classical WQXR was always on the radio, when we had one; though I never learned to like Milton Cross and the weekly opera broadcasts).  When Greta moved to Los Angeles, George (my father) and Anna made the trek to visit in the summer, after Robin was born.  I was 10 and the year was 1953.  We visited again in 1955, when Greta and Leon had moved to  Buena Park, and the house they lived in had a room we all called the “music room,”  where the piano resided and, more important, the record collection and a stereophonic record player.  This is where I first heard The Weavers, Pete Seeger, songs of the Spanish Civil War, Leadbelly, Theodore Bikel, Josh White, Burl Ives.

In 1960, when I moved to Los Angeles to attend USC, I lived in a dormitory for the first two Version 3years.  To civilize me, Greta and Leon gifted me with a portable record player that sat on the desk built into the wall overlooking Figueroa St., where my roommate and I did our homework, and where I played the first record she bought for me — the one I still call the “Green Quintet” because of the cover.  This is the version on that record.I also listened to the late night folk music shows with dj Les Claypool, hunkered down next to the radio, watching while crews moved houses down the middle of the street. I retreated to Greta’s living room, the one with the massive ceiling beams 18 feet from the floor, where I first heard the Fauré and Brahms Requiems.

Something interposed a kind of silence between us as I left school and became more politically active.  Most likely the doctrinaire attitude I adopted didn’t help. But as Anna began to fail in health — around the mid 1970s — we grew closer together to cope with her Alzheimers and wondering about her death.


Anna, perched behind the front counter, greeted  customers

The first inklings had come after I had committed to visit weekly, take her to lunch and to help out at the Midnight Special Bookstore.  She began to complain frequently of dizziness.  After a number of visits to the clinic, the doctor summoned me into his office and asked about Anna’s alcohol intake. The doctor further cracked the shell of my denial, when he encouraged me to smell her breath.  After  the appropriate investigation, I drove her to her apartment where I found a hidden bottle of vodka.  I emptied it down the drain.  Anna screamed with anger.  By this time she was having difficulty finding her way to the grocery store a couple of blocks away.  She had already become unable to manage her checking account.  The final straw was the chicken she had roasted and left in the (unlit) oven until the stench in


The Midnight Special hosted a birthday party and a fundraiser for the Texas Farmworkers.  Anna was the honoree.

the house was overwhelming.  Greta and I began looking for a placement for her (neither of us were capable of the full time care she required) and quickly found that medicare didn’t provide much more than warehousing for long term care.  Nevertheless, we did find a nursing home that was better than most and we made preparations to move her.  We bonded again over the terrible task of cleaning, sorting, and discarding the accumulation of a lifetime.  I took my father’s books and the bookcases he had built (I still have those).  Before Greta moved to Waterloo, Ontario, but while Anna was living in the nursing home, we celebrated her 83th birthday with a barbecue at Penmar Park in Venice, California.


Anna, Greta, Lew, Lee at Anna’s 83rd birthday party


At this point Anna is having a great birthday party!









In August, 1983, Anna died at 87 years old.  Greta, who told me she felt guilty about having left me to handle Anna’s last, difficult years, came to Los Angeles for the celebration of her life. There had to some ambiguity, some internal conflict but our emotions were both raw. There was not much to say then.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

When Greta wrote that note in 1991, I had moved to Chicago.  That spring I went to New York to attend the American Booksellers Association Convention and Trade Show.  Greta and I planned a vacation together after the show.  She met me in New York and worked out the details of our road trip.  We met Randy for dinner in Manhattan, then took our rented


Randy and Greta at dinner in Manhattan, 1991

car out to New England. Greta was the link that connected families, while I retreated from involvement with family.  This, I thought, might be an opportunity to re-introduce myself to people I hadn’t seen since I left New Haven in 1960 or even earlier.  Old habits die hard, and you can’t reinvent or recover the past.  So Greta remained my connection to family for the next 17 years.  In some important ways, she still is. We agreed, as a result of our trip together, to spend more time together, and, if we couldn’t do anything else, we’d agree to come to each other’s cities for our birthdays.  May became my annual trek to Waterloo, timed with the international quilt festival. Hers was to tag onto the end or beginning of her annual learning disability teachers conference a long weekend in mid November with Diana and me. This trip could well have been the first time I told Greta I was falling in love; or it might have been in the fall when I went through Ann Arbor by train to Waterloo (you could do that in those days). I confessed that I really hoped this was for real, feared it wouldn’t be. Greta hoped so too.


Our 1991 trip really brought us together and set the stage for the next years.

Greta had introduced me to a book by Lynn Sharon Schwartz, Disturbances in the Field. I remember our conversations about music from this time.  One of the main themes of the book is around music, specifically the Trout piano quintet of Schubert.  The main character is a pianist and, as the story begins, part of a philosophy study group in college.  As I read the book I listened over and over to the Trout, to the point that I began to think that the Green Quintet was the Trout. I no longer remember what we talked about, even what in the book felt so important, but the book really struck home at the time.  As it enveloped my thinking at the time, I brought it into conversations with Diana and think now of the book as part of our courtship process.    This is the version described in the book. As often as I credit Sue Ying Peery for being our matchmaker, I also need to credit Greta because of this book.  Not a bad pair actually, as I think of walking with Sue and Jack Hirschman in San Francisco one happy afternoon in North Beach, with Jack going on about Susie and Lewie and Jackie (where Susie was Sister Susie).


Greta and Ronni at her 65th birthday party in Pittsburgh



In September, 1996 Diana and I drove to Waterloo with David and his friend Steve, camping along the way.  I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures of people, not posed smiley shots, but portraits that reveal something of who the person is.  These are two of my favorites, Diana and Greta in a pensive conversational moment at a beach, while the kids are swimming.




These two pictures were taken in April, 1999, when Diana and I visited Waterloo with Courtney, Téa (2 yrs) and Zach (4 months old).  The top one has a certain pixie look that I have come to associate with Greta; the bottom a strained, can-you-please-stop-the-puns-already look. I look into those eyes, the turn of the mouth, and almost hear her near me. This was the year the NYPD shot and killed Amadou Diallo, the year Bruce Springsteen first performed “American Skin (41 Shots),” about which we had extensive correspondence.

Robin and Greta, Schneider Haus, Kitchener May 2003.jpg

One of our highlights on the spring visits to Waterloo was the quilt festival.  We’d regularly go to the Mennonite Relief Fund Auction and also, in Kitchener, to the Schneider Haus, the original Mennonite settlement in the area.  We’d see some of the demonstrations going on in the Haus, and once Diana entered a contest to submit quilt patches to be part of an annual quilt.  Here Robin and Greta stand outside the Schneider Haus, a misty rainy day, in the splendor of lilacs.  This photo, May 31, 2003 was on a visit when Greta and Diana and I took a short hike in Monarch Woods, just about the last one we took together.  Greta could less and less rely on her balance.  It was around this time that she told us she had Parkinsons.


This is May, 2005, and again the lilacs.  The theme recurs.  Near where Greta lived was a trail at the crest of which were a row of lilac bushes, white ones, intensely fragrant ones.  Visiting Greta at her birthday was a time of lilac celebration.  Even before this, the very idea of lilac excited me, but more and more the convergence of the Greta visits and the blooming of the lilacs assumed a greater significance.  And always music.

In the fall of 2004 when Greta came to Chicago, it was difficult for her to climb the stairs to our fourth floor apartment.  Nevertheless she stayed with us and ventured out on occasion.  Barnes and Noble had just fired me (on the same day that I got my 10 year pin for loyalty and service!). Dave Marsh offered me a gig transcribing interviews he had done in preparation for a book.  So Greta sat in our living room watching me Rube Goldberg a computer based transcription mechanism  and slowly work through the process of extracting phrase after phrase to make sure it sounded accurate.  I showed her the transcripts and played the music he was describing, and we talked and talked.  We would discuss the content of the lyrics, the thought process behind the arrangements, the musical ideas that Bruce Springsteen discussed, the artists he referred to. Looking back now it seems to me I was doing in my music room for her what she had done for me so many years earlier.  No matter, however; the loudness of rock and roll was beyond her ken, beyond her ability to withstand it for long.  Still it was a kind of eagerness, a kind of experience that she could only occupy vicariously, and she valued that chance through our talking and listening together. It was probably the next spring, in fact, that gave me an opportunity to cross the barrier.  When we visited in the spring of 2005, I brought with me the recently released Seeger Sessions, and we played that DVD on her TV screen, something I hoped would bridge the gap between the folk she knew and the rock.    There were other examples too.

In February 1999, Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times and killed by the NYPD.  In response, Springsteen wrote and performed (June 2000) “American Skin (41 Shots” and I immediately began writing to Greta about this, we exchanged letters (emails). Since then there have been so many good versions done of this song, easily found on youtube. This is the one I would have been listening to, this and the studio version.  This is the first of the Madison Square Garden shows that the NY Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association threatened with violence.  This year I’d like to share with her the Living Colour version, or the version Jackson Brown did with a gospel choir, or the ones Springsteen has done with Tom Morello.  But I can’t.  I can only open my ears wider.

I know we talked about the “Ghost of Tom Joad,” and I wish I could have shared this version with her. A song I have always found satisfying becomes anthemic with the added guitar and voice of Tom Morello.  I want to talk about metaphor, about the screaming voice of the guitar and why, the insistent drumbeat, to tell her about the homeless under viaducts in my city.  I want to listen to her tell me what she hears.  I know that she appreciated the lyrics, but what would she think of the sounds?

Let’s come back to Greta’s 1991 note about Marian Anderson. When Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing was published in 2003, I read the book and immediately shared my impressions with Greta. The parent protagonists in this novel meet at the Marian Anderson concert in Washington, DC, when Eleanor Roosevelt  skirted the refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution to allow Anderson to perform.  Instead, Roosevelt arranged for an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial, and some 75,000 people came to D.C. to hear.  Like Disturbances In The Field, the novel crosses music as a central theme with a different discipline, in this case physics. The Jewish physicist immigrant from Nazi Germany meets and marries the musician African American at this concert;  their children turn to music and politics. When we visited in May, 2008 we had given her a copy which she was reading and we promised to carry on the conversations further.


This year, May 2008,  for the first time Greta did not want to expend the energy to go to the Mennonite Relief Quilt Auction. We did go together to the Schneider Haus, but that Greta could not remember the way was disturbing.  This out-of-focus portrait at dinner has become a metaphor for me, Greta fading away.


Once again at the Schneider Haus, May 200, next to the blooming lilacs, Diana, Greta and I.  The magic of this picture is the smile on Greta’s face.

May of 2008 passed, Greta and I talked, as we did pretty much every year for the previous few years, we talked about whether she would continue teaching.  Each year it became more and more problematic.  And as the years passed I finally came to understand that teaching was who Greta understood herself to be.  I don’t think she ever fully resolved her anger with Anna, she did begin to understand what she had learned from her mother. We talked about what she would do if she didn’t teach.  Greta couldn’t imagine it.  And then during the summer, when Greta called to tell me that she had made up her mind not to teach, that she could no longer give her students what they needed, what the families were paying for, it was at best a tone of resignation.  And then came the dreadful days of fall 2008 and Greta’s death in November.

0000539-r2-013-5There are three more things to say.  First, Greta died proud of having cast an absentee ballot for Barack Obama. Second, the memorial/celebration for Greta brought together the family she worked so hard to connect all her life. And third, I continue to write letters to Greta about politics and music and lilacs. (See The Highway Is Alive Tonight, Lilac Time, and Fabric of Memory).


Mementos 4: How I Came to Guild Books and What I Found There

Mementos 4:  How I Came to Guild Books and What I Found There

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery in less than two weeks, October 26, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]

Before I left Los Angeles, the Midnight Special Bookstore owner, Margie Ghiz, hosted a farewell party.  Authors, activists, sales reps for publishers, customers, coworkers and midnight-special-bookstore-card-copyfriends showed up.  Jock Hayward, who represented books for Hand Associates, was “shocked to see all the people,”  pretty much as I was.  College professor Michael Vivian warned me that Chicago cops are nothing like L.A. cops.  But politically active poet Bill Oandasan, who had lived in Chicago and read his work at Guild,  wrote “The Guild is as close to an afterlife as anyone from the Midnight Special will get.”  And, as Lorraine Suzuki pointed out, I did leave behind one good thing: “At least there will be one more parking space behind the store”!

We spent many long hours talking, critiquing and working with artist Michael Quant, when we designed the logo for the Midnight Special.  The bookstore, like the Guild, came out of the anti-war movement of the 1960s.  The name referred to Leadbelly’s famous song, and the bookstore was intended as an instrument to shine a light in the direction of freedom, justice, peace.  It was a reaction to the frustration of increasing numbers in the streets in opposition to the war, while the war dragged on.  The Guild had come out of the same milieu in Chicago.

Some people maintain that there is no bad time to leave Los Angeles. We picked the worst time.

Wednesday, November 25, 1987. Rush hour on the San Bernardino Freeway, heading east, out of town at 4 pm. The day before Thanksgiving. The Toyota station wagon packed full, the rear view mirror useless, then more added to the carrier rack on top. Lee, her sister Marie, and I squeezed inside, Marie wedged in among packages and clothing in the back.

That morning I said good-byes to our Chinatown neighbors, people we had known for many years. The people in our building still thanked us for fighting the landlord to keep him from doubling the rents in violation of rent-control. By early afternoon, irritation at our delay had reached mountainous proportions. When we finally piled into the car and I started the engine, the irritation began to recede. By the time, 15 minutes later, when we’d entered the freeway off Mission St. and inched our way across four lanes to go toward San Bernardino, we had resigned ourselves to baking in slow moving traffic, millions of Angelenos leaving for the holiday weekend.

80 miles to the east towered the peaks of Mt. San Jacinto and San Gorgonio, 10,000 feet above the desert floor. We might be lucky and make it through Banning and into the San Gorgonio Pass in 2 hours. By then, once the sun had set behind us, the drive would be tolerable, even as we entered the desert. Resignation didn’t stop us from blaming each other for the late start, but soon that became old. We listened to music for a while, nothing to seize our attention.   As we passed Pomona, we turned on the all news station. “Give us 20 minutes and we’ll give you the world.”

We didn’t need KFWB to give us the traffic report. It was all around us. We weren’t prepared for the world. Sports and weather yielded to the big story of the day. Harold Washington, mayor of my new home, Chicago, had suffered a massive heart attack, or so it was thought. The news confirmed that he was dead. There may have been other news. There probably was. Lee and I stared open mouthed at each other. Marie, who had not known the significance of Washington’s election against the machine, the significance of his program, couldn’t fathom the grief we showed.

I turned the radio louder, expecting to hear more if I turned it up. When the radio refused to divulge new information, we started switching stations, Lee turning the buttons. We needed to be sure that what we had heard was true.

Then, when finally we hit the vivid loneliness of the desert, the news story sunk in, as if in the noise of the horns and the rubber against cement it was impossible to come to grips with the truth. We stopped at a diner in Indio, silently ate burgers for dinner, gassed up the car, and crossed into Arizona. It was late when we reached Phoenix, pulled up in the driveway outside the Yue family house, and, physically and emotionally exhausted, fell into bed.

Thanksgiving came and went, we stayed through the weekend, and then packed up again, saying good-bye to family. It might be my last time in Phoenix, I thought. Marie stayed behind, Lee and I headed to Chicago. We stopped with Lee’s friends in Edmond, Oklahoma; then in Rolla, Missouri we stayed over in a motel. Late afternoon the next day, Thursday, December 3, we drove into Chicago as the somber daylight was fading, temperature in the rainy, nasty, bone-chilling forties and going down. As we came in, thousands had gathered in the University of Illinois pavilion, at a memorial for the mayor the people called “Harold.”

Jo Ann and Mike made us a bed in their living room, a second floor apartment in Humboldt Park. Desperate to get a feel for my new city, we walked in the rain for a couple of blocks, got a bite to eat at the first local dive, and then went back to unpack. We stayed for a few days until I could settle in. As soon as I got my bearings, I moved a mile east to Wicker Park, the front room of the first floor of an old three-flat at 1248 Hoyne. But when you’ve come 2,000 miles east, left the life you’ve known for 27 years, made plans to move your family to a new city, to take up a position for which you have been recruited, you feel obliged, anxious, need to look again, even if you know the surroundings, to see where you will be spending the next section of your life. So that’s what Lee & I did. We went to Lincoln Avenue, went to see Richard Bray, went to Guild Books.  A few days later Lee returned to Los Angeles

* * * * * * * * * * *

Mr. Sourwine, Mr. Feely and Mr. Port are not names from the pages of Dickens novel. They speak from the pages of a transcript of hearings before a subcommittee of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee. The hearings, held August 3, 1970, investigated the “Extent of Subversion in the “New Left.” Senator Marlow Cook presided over these hearings. J.G. Sourwine was the chief counsel. The subcommittee met in Washington, D.C. and took the testimony of Hugh Patrick Feely and Harry Port, both board members of the Lincoln park (Chicago) Conservation Association. Feely & Port had conducted “investigations” of revolutionary organizations operating in Lincoln Park in the 2 years prior to the hearings. Early in the testimony Port brought a list of “revolutionary organizations” and organizations supporting them, to the attention of the committee. He mentioned churches, youth gangs (these include the Young Lords and Young Patriots organizations), underground media, a coffehouse, the Student Health Organization, and Guild Books, characterized as a “radical information center.”

Much later in the transcript, p 1096, the following exchange occurs between Mr. Sourwine and Mr. Port:

Mr. Port: The other thing, what I call radical information centers which handle not only the underground newspapers from Chicago but material which is Communist material which is printed in China, and so forth, which are the Guild Book Shop, and the People’s Information Center, located in the Lincoln Park area.

Mr. Sourwine: Tell us a little about each one.

Mr. Port: The Guild Book Shop, as well as acting as a bookshop also is the publisher of the Second City newspaper, which is an underground newspaper purporting to deal in matters of revolutionary activities.

Mr. Sourwine: Is the Guild Book Shop in fact a book shop?

Mr. Port: It acts as a bookshop, yes.

Mr. Sourwine: Where is it located?

Mr. Port: It is located on Halsted Street, 2136 North Halsted . . .

Mr. Sourwine: What is the Guild, so-called, in connection with the Guild Book Store?

Mr. Port: I have no idea.

Mr. Sourwine: Do you know who owns the Guild Book Shop or runs it?

Mr. Port: I do not.

Mr. Sourwine: What goes on there that is subversive, or violent, or contributes to subversion or violence?

Mr. Port: I would say it is the distribution point of most of the radical literature in the area.

Mr. Sourwine: You understand, I am not arguing . . .

Mr. Port: Right. In other words, their ad would read, you know, “Open 7 days a week, Marxist and other radical literature.”

Mr. Sourwine: Are you in fact reading from one of their ads?

Mr. Port: Right . . .

Mr. Sourwine: Should the text of that ad go into this record, in your opinion?

Mr. Port: I would say that, since they mention Marxist and other radical literature, Lenin, Mao, underground press, et cetera.


The testimony hints at what Lincoln Park was like then. During the 2 years prior to these hearings the 1968 Democratic Party convention had taken place in Chicago, with much of the activity and leadership emanating from organizations in Lincoln Park. In between then and October, 1969, according to Mr. Port’s detailed research, the Young Lords Organization initiated many protests and takeovers in Lincoln Park, often with the help of SDS, the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots, and others. Lincoln Park was the foundation and stronghold of the Young Lords, based among Puerto Rican youth. The immediate cause of the investigation was the October 8 to October 11 “Bring the War Home” rally scheduled for Lincoln Park, that turned into what the committee termed a riot. Fred Hampton’s name appears in the records, mainly as a speaker at a number of northside rallies. No one mentions, in the hearings, the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, leaders of the Black Panthers, on December 4, 1969.

Reading this testimony more than 40 years later feels almost prurient, voyeuristic. Of the names mentioned, some continued for many years as key activists in causes for social justice. Among them are people who own businesses today, teach university classes, offer art classes to south side young people. But there it is, the Guild Book Shop, then on Halsted Street, the center of distribution of all this dangerous material that foments violence and subversion. What a wonderful pedigree to inherit, to explore.

* * * * * * * * * * *


World renowned sculptor Richard Hunt in his studio a few blocks from Guild Books.

June 23, 1981 Robbye Lee finished 32 page letter to Richard Bray, who had become the Guild Books and Periodicals owner/manager.  She and her partner Gil had been among the founders of Guild Books.  The stupidity of the Congressional investigators, meeting an informant in a clandestine location (a parking structure), had actually identified the name of the founder as someone named “Guild.”  Her letter provides rich detail of how the bookstore started within the early developments of the original rainbow coalition — the Puerto Rican Young Lords Organization, the Appalachian Young Patriots not far away in Uptown, and the Black Panther Party.  “Please use this for your own purposes,” she admonished Richard.  “I consider the birthday of the Guild to be May 21, 1967 for that is the day we signed the lease and paid the first month’s rent of $60 for the storefront at 2136 North Halsted.”  Thirteen years later, June 1980, she and Gil sold the “Guild News Agency,” and Richard became its new owner, the store then located 1118 W Armitage.

In the next two years a furious effort took place to center Guild in the major cultural efforts of social transformation taking place in Chicago and the world, attracting leading writers to present their work at the store.  Then, in August, 1981, Richard Bray took a breath, stepped back, took stock, and launched a second anniversary celebration. Guild staged this party at Holsteins – a folk club at 2464 Lincoln Avenue presided over by brothers Fred and Ed Holstein. Fred performed widely within the vibrant Chicago folk scene (he was often called the “Dean” of Chicago folk music). Along with Fred, David Hernandez (the poet laureate of the streets of Chicago) performed with his band Street Sounds. Sparrow and Joanie Pallatto reprised their earlier benefit performance. Holstein’s was just across Montana Ave. from 2456 Lincoln, where Guild was to move nine months later.

The last event at Armitage celebrated the work of Meridel Le Sueur, the best known of the 1930’s proletarian women writers. During the cold war she had been blacklisted perhaps more severely than any of her contemporaries. However in the 60s and 70s, in part due to increased interest in women writers again, her work was rediscovered. Some of her work meridel-le-sueur-the-girl-1had been reissued by West End Press, including her best known The Girl. The book party at Guild recognized a new anthology issued by Feminist Press, Ripening: Selected Work 1927-1980.

Born in 1900, Meridel was already 82 when she came to Guild on April 3. “The people are a story that never ends,” she wrote in North Star Country, a story she continued to tell throughout her life. Elaine Hedges’ introduction to Ripening is a thorough description of Meridel’s life and work. Surrounded during her early years by socialists and anarchists (her stepfather was a labor organizer imprisoned during World War I because of his anti-war activity; she was an intimate of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman), she joined the Communist Party in 1924. She found intellectual sustenance in the John Reed Clubs, the cultural wing of the Communist Party. She published actively in the 1930s, read a paper at the American Writers Congress held in New York, and in 1940 published Salute to Spring with International Publishers. In 1939 she finished a manuscript she called The Girl, sent it off the New York publishers, who rejected it because of its sexuality, language (hard swearing)


Ripening: Selected Work, 1927-1980

and a gangster scene they were convinced was unrealistic. The post WWII blacklist consigned her to oblivion for the next 20 years, a time when it was difficult for her to make a living at all.

Friends and supporters helped a revival of her work in the 1970s. Toward the end of the decade, West End Press began a relationship with Meridel. John Crawford had begun West End in order to publish working class writers who had been neglected since the WPA. In an afterword to The Girl written in 1987, Crawford tells of visiting LeSueur in her home in 1977, rummaging through her basement and finding material for several volumes which, over time, published. LeSueur was so taken with Crawford and the other young people who sought to reestablish her reputation that she put these words in a letter she sent to him:

I have to express it feebly, poorly, but it is very important, a miracle . . . This has to do with the reprinting of my literary tracks, pollination out of the primordial mud . . . out of social darkness and struggles and individual annihilations and resurrections [. . .] you all come so sturdily and silently and tenderly to the ruins . . .

John Crawford first published The Girl in 1978, an edition which then went through 6 printings. A revised edition was issued in 1990 and, by 1999, had gone through 4 printings. By 1982, when Meridel appeared at Guild, her reputation was indeed on an upward trajectory: her books were also on demand at Midnight Special in Venice, California, where I worked.   And Meridel was traveling and talking with people, young and old people, about the conditions they faced some sixty years after she began writing The Girl.

A suitable end to Guild’s sojourn at Armitage; and exciting beginning for Guild’s new home, beginning in May, 1982.

Guild moved to 2456 N Lincoln and promptly called on the support it had been cultivating the previous 3 years. “Writers to the Rescue” raised funds for Guild, a “mini-marathon” reading which promised the appearance of more than 48 poets on May 5. It was held at Crosscurrents, 3206 N Wilton, from 8 PM to midnight and foreshadowed future benefits and support activities by Chicago writers.

In the spring, 1983, I visited Chicago to participate in a conference of revolutionary work in culture, a meeting of artists, writers, musicians and others involved in what was broadly called cultural work.  I came because of my work with Midnight Special Bookstore. Of course I stayed a couple of weeks after the conference to work with Richard at Guild.  Here I sat in and observed a meeting that planned an extensive event to celebrate the work of Nelson Algren, on the occasion of the reprint of his classic Chicago, City On the Make.

Of course it was important because of Algren’s connection to Chicago. He’d lived for years in Chicago, had connections with the poetry society of Chicago, wrote his most trenchant novels about working class life in Chicago. Algren never got the appreciation he had hoped for in Chicago and had moved east, where he died in 1981. But his loyal following jumped on the opportunity presented by McGraw-Hill reprinting City on the Make. Richard convened a group that included Brecht scholar Warren Leming, poet Stuart McCarrell, photographer Stephen Deutch and others like Studs Terkel and Mike Royko who lent their support to the program. What much later became the “Algren Committee” had its foundation here. The Committee came together formally in 1989 and dedicated itself to keeping his work in print, celebrating his birthday, and giving an annual award in his name. In some sense the Algren Award countered the Chicago Tribune, which began offering a literary award in his name in 1986. Chicago magazine had actually begun this award for best short story in 1981. Christine Neuman from Chicago magazine formed part of the active committee to put on the Guild event. By 1989 Algren aficionados were embarrassed, no, incensed, by the Tribune claiming to carry on an Algren tradition.

But in 1983 Guild and the committee it formed put on event was less a memorial than a celebration. They called on some of Algren’s long time Chicago friends for an afternoon exhibit and reception for photographer Stephen Deutch, featuring his photographs illustrating Algren’s Chicago. Studs Terkel read parts from City on the Make. Harry Mark Petrakis, Gwendolyn Brooks, Herman Kogan and Mike Royko all offered comments and


Poetry at Guild Books, Fall 1984

reminiscences. Finally Denise deClue staged reading of scenes from Algren’s Neon Wilderness across the street at Holstein’s in the early evening.

A little more than four years later, when I walked into Guild Books to begin work, the first thing I noticed was the table at the front of the store. Two narrow shelves, perhaps two inches deep, built into the side of the table faced the storefront. The side of the table was 6 feet long. Every book jammed on those two shelves faced out, and each one of those books was a copy of City On The Make, in a new edition published by the University of Chicago Press. From before I came to Chicago, and as long as I was at Guild, the store sold hundreds of copies each year of City on the Make. No wonder that Guild and Algren became so intertwined, since Algren writes in City on the Make, quoting Jean Paul Sartre:  “Literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity.”

Guild Newsletter -- the Guild Review #1.jpg

Fall 1981 Guild newsletter.  Guild would play a leading role in the midwest in convening the American Writers Congress in New York.  Stuart McCarrell’s review of Walk On The Wild Side points toward the convergence of Guild and the work of Nelson Algren.


Mementos 3: How I Got Here

Mementos 3:  How I Got Here

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery in less than two weeks, October 26, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]

When they find out that I came from sunny Southern California, people often ask (incredulousness saturating their voices) why did you come to Chicago.  My usual answer is “Because of the weather.”  A stunned few seconds follows before they get the joke and realize I have not totally lost my grasp of reality.  The real reason is much more complex, and is connected to my meeting Nelson Peery, pictured below.


89 year old writer Meridel Le Sueur at the opening of the Guild Complex in May, 1989.  She is flanked by Nelson Peery on the right (that’s me on the left). A radical who endured the most severe blacklisting from the post war anti-communist hysteria, Meridel had been Nelson’s high school English teacher in Minneapolis. She was also the person who introduced Nelson to communism.

Nelson died a year ago, and I wrote this then:

Sunday, September 6. I lost a brother. He was 92.

Somewhere after midnight. A small building separate from the main house, which was also small, sitting on a lot at 107th and Mona in Watts, California. Sharon and I stood or sat at the table in front of us, collating copies of a book that had just been printed, shifting positions as pain in our bent backs demanded. Some 60 sheets of paper, 2 sheets for a cover, a very heavy duty stapler and staples, and red duct tape to cover the raw ends and the staples to make the book look half way presentable. Eyes bleary, hands slowing down, we were coming close to completing our task, preparing enough copies of the Textbook of Marxist Philosophy to go east, to Chicago, with the comrades leaving in the morning. The door opened, and in walked Nelson Peery, who took one look at our sagging posture and faces and told us to go home before we killed ourselves. We told him we had only a little more to do, then we would leave.

“Brother Lew,” he said, “Comrade Sharon, this is perhaps the most important contribution we’ve made to the revolutionary movement. Thank you so much for your dedication.” He returned to his home next door, getting ready to leave for Chicago in just a few hours.

That was 1977 or 1976. In 2012 Nelson wrote that the League of Revolutionaries for a New America is an organization based in philosophy, not in theory. That is why it has been able to anticipate the economic changes at the base of society and make conclusions reflecting those changes. The theory of the revolutionary movement from which we all emerged was a theory for a different period of history. Perhaps that’s why that book that we had published and assembled that night was so important, a significance I did not recognize at the time, a time when I scratched my head, Sharon and I looked at each other, and basked in the idea that we had done something important for humanity, but we didn’t quite grasp what.

That may have been the first time Nelson called me “Brother Lew,” and there was a certain thrill to it. We were in the same family, and, I thought, if I could have a sister 14 years older than me, why not a brother 20 years older? I was in my early 30s, he in his early 50s. Sure, that makes sense! And this resonates with me now, as a younger comrade consoled me today, writing to me that I lost a brother.

Indeed I have. Nelson Peery died yesterday, September 6, 2015 at 92 years old.

The first time I met Nelson – though meet is not the right word, we were not introduced – was at a meeting some 6 years earlier of the East Los Angeles Health Task Force. A coalition of groups and individuals had come together to work for improvement in the delivery of health care to the people of the east side. ELARCA, the East Los Angeles Retarded Children’s Association, advocated for children who could not get services in the nearby County Hospital and the public clinics. Planned Parenthood and Alcoholics Anonymous were also represented, along with students from California State College (not yet the University) in E.L.A. And there were individuals, activists like me. I represented a study group at the U.S.C. Medical School associated with Los Angeles County General Hospital.

Perhaps 10 minutes after the start of an already packed agenda, an older African American man, wearing dusty work shoes and clothes, walked in and excused himself as he took a seat a little in front of mine, to the left. The meeting droned on, it was September and hot despite air conditioning, and as I glanced over I noticed the man was nodding forward. It was a position I recognized, having slept through many university classes. But he was there with a mission. Near the end of the meeting José Duarte, chairing the meeting, introduced him; he walked to the front, and apologized for coming in late and for not being attentive to the business of the meeting (he was a bricklayer, he said, and had come directly from work). Then he told his audience that he had come to speak to the group about the recent Chicano Moratorium, and the police riot that had accompanied it. He brought greetings from the workers of Watts, who had their own experience with a police riot just a few years earlier, in 1965. Whatever support or assistance the workers of Watts could give, they would do so gladly. I didn’t catch his name when he was introduced, but what he said resonated: at every opportunity strive for the unity of the working class. Forty years later, under conditions much different, where an economic equality of poverty confronts a broad section of dispossessed workers, unity of the class is more possible and more important.

It was a few years later before I connected the dots, that this African American bricklayer was Nelson Peery. It happened somewhere around 1972, when I had given up social work and joined the California Communist League, that I actually saw Nelson in action as a teacher. My first recollection was as a neophyte going to a League “school,” a weekend retreat for two solid days of intense classes outside the city, in Riverside, CA. Later there were meetings with the Muni drivers from San Francisco; with members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers from Detroit; with students from Cal State LA deeply involved in the school walkouts and the social issues in the community. All through this time I would hear people talk about going to meet with Nelson about this or that problem, practical, theoretical or philosophical, going to the “Watts House” to have the conversations. And no matter what my problems, to me they never seemed important enough to bother Nelson. I think it was finally around the time of the publication of the Textbook that I apologized for never seeking his help, always feeling intimidated. Intimidation is no longer an excuse; still, of the comrades in Chicago, I think I’ve taken advantage of that opportunity least of all, and especially on this day I regret it.

It was, however, only natural that when Diana and I were married in 1992, I asked


Chicago Tribune photo, from a story about Nelson Peery on the publication of his memoir, Black Fire in 1994. Black Radical, The Future is Up To Us and other articles and pamphlets he had a hand in writing sit near my computer for reference

Nelson to speak at our reception. In 1991 Nelson’s wife Sue Ying’s delicate (and sometimes not-so-delicate) probes had engineered my asking Diana out on a date. In the winter of 1991-92 Guild Books celebrated its longevity at Tony Fitzpatrick’s World Tattoo Gallery, and Nelson came over to talk to us above the music and merrymaking. “You guys must be doing something right, judging by the light in your eyes and the smiles on your faces,” he told us. We held the wedding reception in the field house at Margate Park, and we invited people from my family, Diana’s family, the Guild Books family, and the extended revolutionary family around us. It was a curious assemblage, and I can’t say that everybody felt comfortable together in that room. Nelson made his remarks brief but memorable. It’s wonderful when two people find each other, but two people cannot fulfill each other’s social needs for a lifetime. The way to maintain a healthy long term relationship between two people is to maintain, at the same time, a relationship to the revolutionary class. That connection gives a marriage a kind of stability. [See the attachment below of the actual text] I’ve often thought about this, I’ve seen it like Antaeus’ connection to the earth gave him strength, and how an organization of revolutionaries gives the broadest connection to the class. I think about it in nearly all my conversations with Diana as we struggle through the difficult times around us.

When I first came into the movement, it was a much different movement than it is today. Then, in the midst of the civil rights and anti-war movement, the struggle against direct colonialism was reaching its end. Those of us came into the movement buoyed by national liberation struggles and ideas of a socialist or communist America. If only we could win over enough people to our ideas, we would win! In the first collectives of which I was a member, I was given the task of literature director for the area and placed on the area education committee. I think that’s because the comrades couldn’t figure out what to do with me, and I had more education than most of the other comrades. The fact is that I didn’t know much.


Nelson Peery’s wife, Sue Ying, grew up in Harlem, a child of a Chinese father and a Norwegian mother.

Sue Ying suggested that I work on a philosophy class for the education committee, one on “relative and absolute truth.” The function of the class was to examine under what circumstances things may be true. Without my understanding what I was doing at the time, the collective developed a class that later could be used to recognize how we were passing from one quality of struggle to a new quality; from a quality in which reforms were possible to one where reforms are no longer possible. It took years to refine this investigation to an intensive study of political economy and the implications of a new economy.

But once that happened, I realized that I had never made the kind of contribution that could be expected of someone who had the research strengths that I did. Diana and I collaborated on an article for the Rally Comrades! on the environment, one which we struggled over along with the editorial board to have it say what needed to be said. This was only 2 years ago. In an LRNA meeting shortly before the article was scheduled to be published, I was sitting not far from Nelson, when he leaned over and said, “You’ve written an excellent dialectical article! Congratulations.”

Many years earlier, in the 1980s, Nelson and I were talking. He asked me: “Tell me, we did so many bad things to the comrades in those early days. I’ve been thinking about this for years. Do you ever regret that we kept you from finishing medical school?” I assured Nelson that I had quit school before even meeting the League. I’m not sure he quite believed me, but it seemed he was much relieved at the moment. Even if the League was not responsible for my quitting school, it was responsible for my quitting Los Angeles.

My “literature director” assignment had brought me to the Midnight Special Bookstore to sell them publications we were printing, books as well as periodicals. In the process of meeting these dedicated revolutionaries, they asked me to facilitate a study group. This led to my working for the bookstore as a volunteer, a function which turned into a full time assignment, ultimately as an employee of the bookstore. One day I got a call from Nelson, then in Chicago, asking if I would consider the possibility of moving to work in Guild Books. That required a visit to Chicago, some intense meetings, a lunch at My Pi restaurant on Clark St., and then figuring out how to leave

Nelson with Studs.jpg

Nelson and Studs Terkel at a reception for The New Press, publisher of Black Fire and of Studs’ books

my L.A. assignments with the least possible harm. And so it happened at the end of November, 1987, with my Toyota station wagon packed to the gills, that I drove out of L.A.

The last time I heard Nelson participate in a meeting, about three weeks before he died, he was preparing for an upcoming national meeting, and talked about the ideas he felt were most important. What struck me was how tired he seemed, how the frustration in his voice was palpable. As he had said very often, “I’m not saying anything new, I’ve said the same thing over and over again.” He went on, and this is a paraphrase of what he actually said: People adhere too much to the texts of the past, the period of ideological communism, trying to master the texts as if memorizing them will answer the questions we have to face now. If we could only get across that we need new forms, that we need to try new things and evaluate them. You can’t use the same tactics of a period of reform in a period of a leap to a totally new quality.

Tonight I’m thinking of all these instances, of his smile when Diana and I were courting, of his concern about misleading me from my future, of his congratulations on doing something of value. And I think back to that night in the Watts house with Sharon and the Textbook, and I think of the legacy of thinking for ourselves to chart the course of the future, a future that no one has ever experienced before, when humanity can for the first time become fully human.

As with any person who has had a profound impact on the people around him, Nelson’s story is also the story of the people he influenced. A few weeks ago I gave Courtney, my


The twinkle in Sue Ying’s eye, the mischievous smile . . .

daughter, a photo of Nelson that we had, because she wanted something on her desk to inspire her, something that reminded her of her Papa Nelson. The need for building a revolutionary organization, for collective decision making, were foremost in his thinking.  I can’t remember Nelson without also remembering Sue Ying, that first education committee, and the importance she gave to political education.  The ride from one of those education committee meetings, me driving my beat up VW bus from Sid’s house east along Gage Ave and the discourse about Marx and Capital, my first serious conversations about political economy.  I can’t remember Nelson without remembering the twinkle in Sue Ying’s eyes, the mischievous smile when she invited me to the artist salons she and Diana were engineering in Diana’s Evanston apartment.  How I got here, how we got here, is so much a part of the process that began that night in East Los Angeles, when Nelson Peery stood up and expressed the solidarity of the workers of Watts for the workers of East Los Angeles.


Page 1 of Nelson Peery’s “benediction” at Diana’s and my wedding reception.  More below.


Page 2 of 3

Nelson- Wedding Benediction p 3.jpg

Nelson’s “benediction” p 3 of 3


Mementos 2: “Your Deadline For This Article”

Mementos 2

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery in less than two weeks, October 26, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]


Diana and I were married in June, 1992.  We had just moved into a third floor apartment in South Evanston.  Our Chicago friends winked at us, saying “Oh, you’ve move UP to the suburbs!” Courtney, who was still in high school, along with some of our Evanston friends looked askance at us saying, “Oooh, you’ve moved into the ghetto!”  As we left the apartment after a pre-move-in inspection one, Diana and I basked in the warm morning sunshine, laughing at the wide variance in preconceptions and, looking at the surroundings about us, thinking that Courtney didn’t really know what “ghetto” was.

Nevertheless, the week before we moved in a teenager was shot and killed as she stood on her front steps a block from where we were about to live. Howard Ave., one block south, was the dividing line between Evanston and Chicago, historically where liquor stores lined up on the Chicago side, to take advantage of the trade from a dry town that had been the home base of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Courtney and David were living with us, both trying to adjust to me, with varying, uneasy degrees of success,  as their new father.  The apartment was enormous.  The two “official” bedrooms were supplemented by a sun porch in back that was well insulated and acted quite well as a third bedroom.  In between the two bedrooms was a large dining room.  The kitchen was a decent size, and a walk-in pantry, the pride of all these old apartments, supplemented the kitchen’s already generous cabinet space.  But the living room, ah, the living room!

It seemed to us that the living room was the size of a football field.  One side had a fake fireplace with a mantel and built-in shelves to the side.  The end had a wonderful wall of windows overlooking Dobson street, the south end of the apartment. We divided the room so that almost half was a studio for Diana, with all her painting equipment carefully arranged.  Jasper also lived in the studio area.

I inherited a hibiscus plant when I moved into Richard  & Susannah Bray’s apartment down the street from Guild Books and Periodicals, and once Richard and Susannah had made their move to California. The hibiscus  had not bloomed since we had met.  From what I learned from Richard afterward, it had never bloomed.  But when Diana and I married, we decided that Jasper was its name, and Jasper took it upon themselves to bloom, tentatively at first, but then prodigiously and with double blossoms.  Jasper lived in the studio space, basking in the sunlight.

Courtney was taking a photography class at Evanston Township High School that year.  She posed her mother in her traditional artist garb, developed the negatives and printed some photos.  This photo was a result of that class and was taken at the time Diana was working on a big painting done in the aftermath of the Watts Rebellion of 1992.  At the end of our double move from Lincoln Park (me) and Evanston (Diana) to our new place, we had returned our Elite Rental truck and were driving north on Western Ave.  The tension in the air had been palpable.  The news was filled with speculation about the announcement of the verdict: would the policemen who beat Rodney King be exonerated or convicted? The police were on high alert, even in Chicago, and as we drove home Diana remarked on the large number of cop cars she saw.  Sure enough, as I drove through an orange light, we were pulled over.  “Do you know why I stopped you?” “No sir.” “Let me see your driver’s license.” “Yes sir.”  (I had already pulled it out.)  He ran a check, while he told me I had gone through an orange light.  He asked a few more terse questions and made sure that we were not part of some plot connected to Los Angeles, and let us go with a warning, there being much more important stuff for them to do.  We breathed a sigh of relief, headed home, to find out that Los Angeles was in flames.  The painting you see in the background of the photo is allegorical of Los Angeles, its rebellion, and a new world emerging from the flames.

Nelson Peery used to call Diana a Bolshevik, I think partly to tease her (because that was the last thing she thought she was), but partly to affirm his praise for her steadfastness, her willingness to fight for what is right.  Part of that steadfastness is to focus on the task ahead to demand that it get done — demand it of herself or of others who are responsible. And so she took this print and added the speech bubble, and gave it to me.  I have it at my computer to this day to remind me of my tasks, my assignments and her expectations!


Been A Long Time Coming, But I Know A Change Is Gonna Come


Diana, David and Jasper


Mementos 1

Mementos 1

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery in less than two weeks, October 26, 2016.  One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me.  The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog.  I can then access it on my phone.  That is my goal here]


In 1966 I made friends with Jerry Ginsburg when we were both medical students at U.S.C.  Jerry lived not far from campus, and would commute on his motor scooter. One day his scooter stopped abruptly as it malfunctioned, and it catapulted Jerry over the handlebars onto his elbows breaking both his arms.  Nevertheless, the patched up and encasted student made it to class every day and ultimately became a physician and cardiologist in Salinas.  He was fluent in Spanish and had spent time in Puerto Rico in the Peace Corps, and he became active in the Student Health Project as well, spending one summer working with farmworkers in Salinas.  Jerry was also a wonderful photographer who maintained a darkroom in a kind of storage shed in the back of the apartment where he lived.  My memory of that space fades after 50 years.  But what I do remember is that Jerry taught me how to develop negatives and print pictures from them.  The latter is what delighted me and I spent many years, starting with learning from Jerry and later on my own at the Los Angeles Photography Center, playing with photos, trying to get them just right, experimenting with different papers and textures.  Mostly I printed from my own negatives.  But this one was from a negative that Jerry took from within the Watts towers, a magical place I would return to many times and would think about often.  This photo makes me think of Jerry, his indomitable personality, his generous nature, and his concern for other human beings. Enter a caption


I went camping for the first time in 1966.  That summer I worked in the Student Health Project in Planada, a small town seven miles east of Merced, California.  Sitting astride the Route #140 highway, the town looked east into the peaks of Yosemite National Park.  One weekend my coworker, dental student Dave Seeger, suggested we head up to Yosemite, so at the last minute I borrowed a sleeping bag and we drove to the floor of Yosemite Valley (you could still do this) and found a place on the ground to throw our sleeping bags (the campground — no longer there — actually was not completely full).  After that I lived, breathed to go camping, and Sequoia became my destination of choice. I never went on long, mountain man trips, never a primitive camper.  But walking among the giants of Giant Forest Village, climbing to Emerald Lake, examining the flora and fauna I would stumble across delighted me every summer while I lived in Southern California.  After my first encounter with camping I did go shopping for some gear.  I spent something like $75 on a pair of Timberland boots (way more than I could afford), bought a serious backpack which could haul 40 to 60 lbs of gear, including the little axe pictured here.  This trip to Sequoia was taken with Ed Wong, my lab partner in medical school, who took this photo with my camera.  Some years ago I knew I would never again be able to do the kind of climbing I did when I was younger.  And I’ve always known that this picture of mountain-man-me was something of a fraud! But I’ve never given up the enjoyment that being outdoors, among the big trees, engenders.   Enter a caption


The year this picture was taken, 1968, I owned an MGB  convertible. The school year had ended, it was late June before work began for me.  Ed Wong sat in the passenger seat of the car.  Packed in the trunk, on the back of the trunk, and low behind the seats was our gear for the trip — sleeping bags, back packs, a pup tent, cooking utensils, food, and a jug of Gallo wine.  On top of the gear in the “rumble seat” behind us clung Nancy Wimberley (now Shinno), all of us students at U.S.C. medical school.   We drove from Los Angeles up the grapevine to Route #198 which we took east through Visalia, then on past Lemon Cove to Porterville and into the Sierras.  Reaching Sequoia, we passed Giant Forest Village to camp in Lodgepole Campground, 6800 feet above sea level.  Early next morning, after breakfast, we headed to Wolverton, where the trail led up toward Heather, Aster, Emerald and finally Pear Lake at 9,300 feet. The trail took us along the wall overlooking the Tokopah Valley, reaching a narrow stretch along what is called “The Watchtower.”  Ed remembers this stretch totally differently from me.  He remembers being totally freaked out by the height and narrow path and thinks I helped him make it through.  On the other hand I remember being totally freaked out by the height and the narrow path, and that Nancy and Ed were my models for making it across.  Whichever (or perhaps both) is true, we made it to Pear Lake and camped by its side, where there was still snow on the ground and the temp got below freezing at night.  Ed and I slept in our bags outside, yielding the limited protection of the tent to Nancy.  I took this photo of Ed, positioning the Livingston Gallo wine jug prominently to emphasize our commitment to the outdoor life.  The white stuff in the pot in the foreground is snow.  We are camped lakeside.  This is one of the most memorable trips, walks, I have taken in Sequoia or elsewhere, and I return to it often in my memory!  Enter a caption

Labor Day or Labor(less) Day? Thinking About A New Generation — Lew Rosenbaum

Labor Day or Labor(less) Day? Thinking About A New Generation 

Musing by Lew Rosenbaum on Labor Day 2016


Detail from the Rogers Park Mural “We The People” by Diana Berek, Juan-Carlos Perez, and Chiara

Friday September 2.  The beginning of the four day Labor Day weekend.  How to think about what labor faces now, not just the trade unions which are the usual celebrators of this weekend, but about labor in its broad aspect, the class of workers including the partially working, the hardly working, the not working, the never to be able to work? Then Lynn Bremer said that that the “artist of the day” on XRT radio would be . . . performances of songs for Labor Day. At that moment he put “Bang The Drum All Day” on, I turned the radio up, and laughed out loud. I decided at that instant that not working would have to come on Labor Day itself, but until then . . .

Day One: What Is Working Class Life?

Diana interjected, as I listened to XRT’s Labor Day offerings, “The Eagle Flies on Friday.” If Stormy Monday begins the week, it’s payday when the paycheck comes and the eagle flies. YES!! Saturday we go out and play, Sunday kneel down and pray!

In between Sunday and Saturday, however, comes the workaday world.  Such a richly layered narrative of working class life in such a compressed, concise, framework,  Patty Griffin’s lyric resonates with me on so many levels. “You could cry, or die, or just make pies all day.”  Click here for “Making Pies.”

“Will the wolf survive” is the question facing us all as we find ourselves strangers in our own strange land, fighting for survival.  The visuals on this one lead into Day Two’s theme, with the migrant’s constant search for home.   Click here for “Will The Wolf Survive?”

Day Two, Saturday:  The Sharpest Expression Facing Labor Is Homelessness

This is the “Trump version” of “I ain’t got no home in this world.” At least we know where Donald learned his racism now. Check out also how it begins in the first verse: “The po-lice make it hard, wherever I may go.” No romanticism about good cops vs bad cops, it’s the role they play in society.   Click here for “I Ain’t Got No Home”

“No matter who you are, no matter where you go in life, you’re gonna need somebody to stand by you.”  Street musicians performing this song in streets all around the world, starting on the beach in Santa Monica, Ca.    Click here for “Stand By Me”

“If Woody Guthrie were alive today, he’d have a lot to write about,” says Bruce Springsteen introducing this version of his Ghost of Tom Joad.  A searing guitar solo leads into the final ” I’m sittin down here in the campfire light waitin on the ghost of Tom Joad”   Click here for the “Ghost of Tom Joad.”

Day Three, Sunday: How “Which Side Are You On?” Changes

Florence Reece sings the original mine workers song.  In Harlan County, there are no neutrals there.  Spare and sharp. Click here for “Which Side Are You On?”

Rebel Diaz launches a torrid hip-hop take on this classic. “The truth is, we’re in so much debt, the only way out is revolution or war.  So now the question is, which side are you on?”  Click here for the Rebel Diaz version.

“We’re on the freedom side” is Adam Gottlieb’s take on this song, updated to 2016 in Chicago.    Click here for the Adam Gottlieb version

Day Four, Monday:What Does The End of Work Mean?

This is the song I heard on the radio the Friday before Labor Day, part of WXRT’s Labor Day song focus, that kicked off my idea for this musical reverie.  Nelson Peery asks in The Future Is Up To Us, “What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about surviving”?  I don’t want to work, I want to bang on the drum all day.  Click here to bang on the drums all day.

David Coe wrote, and in this version sings, a song made popular by Johnny Paycheck.  Thankfully I no longer have to say “take this job and shove it” (though more than occasionally I remember how little my social security covers, and I think wistfully I’d like to have a job to be able to shove) Click here to take your job and shove it!

Pete Seeger sings “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” my favorite utopian song of abundance, written by Harry McClintock, where they hung the jerk that invented work. Click here to find Big Rock Candy Mountain communism!

Ali Hangan writes – The Canary in the Cage: Black Families and the White Working Class

The Canary in the Cage: Black Families and the White Working Class

by Ali Hangan


The black population’s history is one of tragedy and triumph. On the one hand, the population has suffered over 400 years of slavery and entrenched segregation. On the other hand, the Civil Rights movement is considered an American success story. The Civil Rights movement opened up a renewed sense of optimism for the future of the black working class and other oppressed groups. But in the late 1970’s and 80’s, that spirit of optimism began to wane.

American industry confronted with increased competition from abroad, cut costs by outsourcing work and adopting automation. A large swath of black workers in the cities that were once employed became unemployed and ultimately became unemployable. Those families that could move left to the suburbs leaving the remaining population on urban islands with few economic opportunities.

The lack of economic opportunities in the urban black communities provided a fertile ground for a drug economy. Crack cocaine and the culture associated with the drug began to spread at epidemic levels throughout the nation. In the wake of the crack epidemic more intensified policing policies arose in response. The purpose of these policies was not to stop crack per se, but rather to prevent its spread among the more politically organized suburban communities. The tactics to carry out these new policies became the genesis of increased militarization of the police.

The enhanced police tactics entered into the national consciousness by black Hip Hop th-6artists. In 1985, Toddy Tee produced “Battleram” about the LAPD armored vehicle used to smash in crack houses. In 1988, the song “Fuck the Police” by NWA told the story of police intimidation of young black males. And in 1990, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy called upon black communities to defend themselves against the police.

While these songs brought a consciousness to the Gestapo tactics being used to police black communities, it paradoxically renewed old stereotypes about urban black males. With the music industry’s new marketing of music through videos in the 1980’s, they streamed images of black males as gang members into households across the country. This perception of a “black Armageddon” on MTV shifted public opinion toward support of a more comprehensive strategy to police urban black communities.

The new strategy fell under the auspices of the Federal drug enforcement policy, which became known as the “War on Drugs.” The War on Drugs began during the Nixon Administration in 1971. It was a Federal campaign for the prohibition of drugs and enhanced military intervention, with the stated aim being to reduce the illegal drug trade. In 1982, Vice President George H. W. Bush led a push for the involvement of the CIA and U.S. military in drug interdiction efforts. In 1989, under now, President George H. W. Bush, he authorized the creation of a Federal Drug Czar to oversee the war on drugs. Later, raised to a cabinet-level position by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Currently, the Federal Government spends 51 billion annually on the war on drugs. [citation]

The War on drugs has had a devastating effect on the black population:

“The US Department of Justice (DOJ) reports 2.2 million people are in our nation’s jails and prisons and another 4.5 million people are on probation or parole in the US, totaling 6.8 million people, one of every 35 adults. We are far and away the world leader in putting our own people in jail. Most of the people inside are poor and Black.” —- 40 Reasons Our Jails and Prisons Are Full of Black and Poor People, Common Dreams, June 2nd, 2015

“The War on Drugs targets Black people. Drug arrests are a big source of bodies and business for the criminal legal system. Half the arrests these days are for drugs and half of those are for marijuana. Despite the fact that Black and white people use marijuana at the same rates, a Black person is 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person. The ACLU found that in some states Black people were six war-on-drugs1times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites. For all drug arrests between 1980 and 2000 the U.S. Black drug arrest rate rose dramatically from 6.5 to 29.1 per 1,000 persons; during the same period, the white drug arrest rate barely increased from 3.5 to 4.6 per 1,000 persons. ” [Ibid]

The same process that I have attempted to describe amongst the black population is reaching into much broader sections of the working class. Since the economic crash of 2008, capitalism has transitioned into a new stage of development. The increased demands on American companies to compete in the “Just in time” global economy has compelled each to be more flexible adopting more advanced automation and robots. The results have been increased productivity but at the expense of middle-income and unionized jobs impacting many white workers.

The latest wave of economic restructuring has had strong parallels to the process that began in the urban black communities in the 1980’s. This process of decay amongst the white working class has manifested in two visible ways:

1) The surge in the use of meth among the white population.
2) The groundswell of support by the white working class of Donald Trump’s proposals to scale back protectionist policies.

The first two articles that follow focus on the black population but, should be viewed more broadly as a canary in the cage for the entire American working class. In other words, the declining social conditions of the black population provides us with a window into the future for the entire working class as a whole. The flip side is this: As more sections of the working class become equally impoverished it creates a practical basis to move beyond silly notions of race to unify workers politically around a broader class struggle for their common economic survival.

What do you think?

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Excerpt from The incredible crushing despair of the white working class:

“Carol Graham, a happiness researcher at the Brookings Institution, recently analyzed Gallup’s data on life satisfaction and found that when it comes to their outlook on the future, the most desperate groups are poor and near-poor whites.

Gallup asks people to rate their current lives on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst possible life they could be living and 10 is the best. Crucially, they also ask people to imagine what their lives will look like five years in the future.

Among the poor, whites are the demographic group least likely to imagine a better future for themselves, Graham found. Poor Hispanics were about 30 percent more likely to imagine a better future than poor whites. The difference for poor blacks was even larger: They were nearly three times as likely to imagine a better future than poor whites.”

“Part of the optimism gap is indeed because of “a shrinking pie of good jobs for low-skill/blue collar workers,” Graham said in an email. “Whites used to have real advantages (some via discrimination) that they no longer have … they are looking at downward mobility or threats of it, while poor blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to parents who were worse off than they.”

And paradoxically, while some inequalities between races are shrinking, other inequalities within races are growing. Across all races, for instance, the wealthy are gobbling up an ever-growing share of the income pie and leaving less behind for everyone else.”

The Average Black Family Would Need 228 Years to Build the Wealth of a White Family Today
KPCC Airtalk with Larry Mantle: The Movement for Black Lives platform and politics

Half of US jobs could be taken by robots in the next 20 years — here’s how likely it is that yours will be one of them

The incredible crushing despair of the white working class
— “The heights by great men [and women] reached and kept were not attained in sudden flight but, they while their companions slept, they were toiling upwards in the night.” —- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow