Isn’t This A Time?

Isn’t This A Time?

by Lew Rosenbaum

This is a time for Big Poems, / roaring up out of sleaze, /

gbrooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

poems from ice, from vomit, and from tainted blood. /

This is the time for stiff or viscous poems. / Big, and big. 

                                                                                        from “Winnie,” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Sure is a lot of sleaze to go around.

Don’t have to look far to see the vomit on the ground.

Not hard to dip your pen in quarts of tainted blood

So easy to pull metaphors from the vocal flood-

Waters pouring from vicious mouths’ roaring sound

Sure is a pile of sleaze to go around.

“Isn’t this a time? A time to try the soul of man?

Isn’t this a terrible time?!”

Dreams are supposed to make the sleaze go away,

Supposed to give you a boat to ride the flood

But I’m tired of praying for a bus bench on the corner,

Some thread to mend the hole that lets the rain in my tent,

Commodity cheese for dinner tonight.

Tired of begging for a library

Where my kids go to school.

Those dreams are small;

Dreams of what used to be.

Microscopic.

This is the time for stiff, viscous visions,

Visions looking forward

For a home for everyone

Food on everyone’s plate

Cops with wooden legs

Schools where children learn what they need

And how they can

Where we the people

End the carmagnole of corporate vampires

And open the hiphop doorway to abundance for all.

I sing no band-aid, dreamy verses.

“Isn’t this a time? A time to free the soul of man?

Isn’t this a wonderful time!”

Good morning revolution.

Yours is a visionary poem big, and big!th-4

The quotations are from a song,

“Wasn’t Tha
t A Time,”

composed and sung by The Weavers

and popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary

Mementos 11: California Family

Mementos 11:  California Family

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery November 15, 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 2000 and 2009 Diana and I traveled to California to rediscover places that I’d been, california-2000-10uncover links to her family in California, and unearth things we would learn about together.  Mostly this is a montage of photos of those times and something about what made them important to me.

Both times the plan was pretty broad, and covered some of the same routes, the same territory.  The details, however, were different.  This diagram, on the front of my photo book of that trip, gives a sense of the scopes of both trips.

Diana’s cousin Ardis Jackson lived in Sausalito and we arranged on the first trip to stay with her, after we arrived in San Francisco.  Ardis had early in her life studied with Frank Lloyd Wright in Taliesin (Wisconsin) and insisted that we had to see the Marin Civic Center, which he had designed.  We got some insights from her about the building, and about the architect,  that we could not have gotten from any docent.  And we visited Point Reyes on the coast North of San Francisco with her,

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Ardis on the left, with Diana, at Point Reyes

where this picture of her with Diana is taken.

Another mission of mine was to reconnect with Raymond Boyington, my closest friend in high school.  We had maintained a correspondence for a while as we went our separate collegiate ways and for a short time after.  But we lost touch with each other even, as it turns out, living in the same city for a time (Los Angeles) without knowing it.  In the early days of the internet is was possible to find an address and phone number for a friend free of charge — more convenient than, say, going to the public library and combing through volume after volume of telephone directories in the hopes of finding the person one is searching for.  And that internet search is how I found out that Ray was living in San Francisco, and we made arrangements to meet and have dinner in his San Francisco apartment. This copy of

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Lew and Ray, in Ray’s SF apartment

Ray’s photo comes from that visit (my only photo of that is underexposed by poor lighting and no flash).

Nine years later Ray had moved with his partner, Jack, from the high rent district to Richmond, having bought something they thought would be affordable.  The foreclosure crisis had hit, the economy was on the skids, and, as we drove around San Francisco, Ray pointed to office and residential high rises in the city that were virtually empty because no one could afford them.  Now Jack was facing a crisis of his own, as a city employee who had been fired, which had repercussions for them: Keeping their Richmond home was problematic and at the same time the housing environment made it unsaleable.

After leaving San Francisco, Diana and I went South to Santa Cruz, where my friend from undergraduate school at USC now lived.  He had gone on to UCLA Medical School, graduated and become a psychiatrist. Our efforts to keep in touch had been much more regular — he and his wife, Jill, had been to visit us in Chicago on an almost annual basis; and while I lived in Los Angeles, I had visited his home in Lomita while he did his residency at Harbor General Hospital.  I had also made the trek to Santa Cruz to visit with him, but this was the first time traveling there with Diana.  Bill and Jill had planned an intensive couple of days with us, but the centerpiece was the visit to the Steinbeck House and Steinbeck Museum in Salinas.  The

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The upper photo at the Harmons’ home (with daughter Meggin);  the lower photo with Diana, Jill and Meggin in front of the Steinbeck Home, where we had lunch.

very term “Steinbeck Country” evokes memories and emotions that come from the short time I’ve spent in The Valley — not so much the Salinas Valley, but mostly the great San Joaquin, and the places in between.  The smells of Cannery Row are gone forever in Monterey, but the ghosts of the smells still haunt the place, make you wonder about the gentry having dinner in the high priced restaurants along the way.

We are also delighted that the Museum had an exhibit of the photos of Tina Modotti, who had been so much a part of the revolutionary artistic ferment of Mexico in the 1920s, joined the Communist Party of Mexico, and who later participated in the the Spanish Civil War. She had come to Mexico with her photographer friend Edward Weston, but soon struck out on her own.   (The novel, Tinisima, by Mexican author Elena Poniatowska paints a vivid portrait of her and of the period, and is available in a number of English and Spanish editions.)

From Santa Cruz we headed South through Salinas and through the Los Padres National Forest West of the San Joaquin — mostly oak woodland and chaparral country — to “the 198,” the highway that traverses the Valley from the Los Padres to the foothills of Sequoia National Forest.  The 198 leads through Hanford, which california-2000-4at one time had held a large Chinese community, immigrants who had worked building the railroads and were farmers bought property here until the “exclusion acts” recognized that capital no longer needed to exploit their labor.  They had found a kind of refuge in Hanford, with a vibrant commercial district called China Alley. What I knew about this place came from a Los Angeles Times article I’d read many years earlier. You know how some piece of trivia sticks in your mind and memory, every once in a while pricking you as if it were a sliver?  A high level delegation from the only recently recognized People’s Republic Of China were in California, and one of the places they wanted to go was China Alley in Hanford, where a world class restaurant was reputed to be serving their world class cuisine, perhaps “the legendary Imperial Dynasty Restaurant” mentioned here. We were hoping to get to our campground cabin in General Grant Grove up in Kings Canyon, so as we drove into Hanford it was late afternoon, not quite the dinner hour, and no bustling commercial district greeted us.  We had a meal in the one restaurant that was open — there did not seem to be any other place to eat anyway.  Like most rainbows, there was no pot of gold at the end of this one.  But there was a China Alley, and I know that it was not simply a figment of my imagination that I read about in in the Los Angeles Times.

The next time through the Valley, 2009, our route was different leading to Sequoia, taking us out of the mountains and into Bakersfield, looking for a different cuisine, but with a similar result.  When I was in medical school and involved in the Student Health Project, a meeting was called for students in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the location was half way between in Fresno.  I rode up to Fresno with one of the physician mentors of the Project, Don Weston.  We left late in the afternoon, as classes ended, and 2 hours later made our way off the highway toward the east side of Bakersfield.  Don told us that whenever he traveled through the Valley he’d stop for dinner at one of the Basque hotels in Bakersfield.  Bakersfield boasts the second largest number of immigrants in the U.S. from Basque Spain (second to Boise, Idaho).  The immigrants came in the second half of the 19th century, after the gold rush, settling in the fertile foothills on the east side of the Valley, where herding was  temperate, sheltered from the intense summer heat.  They specialized here, as they had in Basque country, in herding sheep for the woolen industry and for food.  And so hotels were established in Bakersfield to cater to this group of workers, who would come in for several days (or longer during shearing season), stay at the hotel and eat the boarders’ food provided.

california-2000-5Don introduced us to a sumptuous family style meal, with one course after another rolling out, beginning with cabbage soup, beans, and thin sliced pickled tongue, and leading through a cornucopia entrees and side dishes to dessert. When Diana and I came off the highway of out Sequoia, we found our way to the Basque section of town, only to find it as closed up as Hanford’s Chinatown had been 9 years earlier.  The restaurant I had been to was probably Noriega’s, but it could have been Woolgrowers too.  But they were not open. And we made our way to one close to the highway that was a poor representation of what I was looking for.  Both Woolgrowers and Noriega’s are still around though, and next year, when I go to visit in California, I want to go there to celebrate!

Diana and I, still in 2000, then went on to General Grant Grove.  Much of my camping and hiking life in California was spent in Sequoia National Park and Forest, and in Kings Canyon as well.  But this was the first time for me staying in Kings Canyon — we didn’t have with us the equipment that would have made camping pleasant, so we rented a cabin for a couple of days.  I was horrified by how breathless I was on a short walk in that altitude, more than a mile high.  I knew then that any dreams I had of reaching Emerald Lake again were now pure fantasy, that I could only get to places this high up on wheels.  Nevertheless the magic of the big trees dwarfing us reasserted its hold on me.  To this day, california-2000-6the image of me with my neck craned to look upward into the boughs of sequoias 100 feet and more above me contrasts with that of Diana, examining the tiny flowers in the undergrowth by the paths on which we were walking. The exception to this was, on the way out of the Forest and onto the Valley floor, still about 3,500 feet up, Diana and I stopped to look at the middle fork of the Kaweah River.  Here I delighted to find a snow plant, one of my favorite discoveries in the mountains many years earlier. The snow plant is not a fungus, as I thought.  Instead, it’s related to manzanita and azalea except that it has no chlorophyll and therefore lives by absorbing food from fungus in the ground that gets its nutrients from the surrounding pine trees.  Its above ground flowering stalk grows from these underground fungal mycelia as the snows thaw in late spring.

california-2000-7From here in to Los Angeles (there are a number of extraordinary murals in the small town of Exeter that are worth stopping to see; especially since you have to drive slowly anyway, because I am convinced that most of the town revenue comes from speeding tickets), where we visited friends and comrades, caught up with Diana’s relatives, and paid homage to the Watts Towers, and I made my first visit to the “Great Wall of Los Angeles.”

While I lived in Los Angeles, I wrote about the mythic Watts Towers and its creator Simon (“Sam”) Rodia in an essay that has long gone missing — unless I am merely making it up, which could be the case.  In any event, there is an official web site for the Towers and much more on the web now, so I’m not going to write that here. But the Towers continue to be one of the most spellbinding places I’ve been, where I always want to return.  And the fact that Diana and I stumbled across similar places in Wisconsin (Dickeyville, Prairie Moon and Grandview, Nick Engelbert home in Hollandale are places we’ve been) only makes the Towers more wondrous.

california-2000-8In a way, the Great Wall is the painterly comparative to the Towers.  Judy Baca, founder of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice, CA., began this project in collaboration with L.A. youth in 1974.  Over the next 5 summers many youth participated in its production, and extended the length of the mural to over 2,700 feet.  The ongoing process of restoration and extending the historical work through the end of the twentieth century — originally entitled “History of California,”  it only covered the time through the 1950s — has included more than 400 young people in the process, some the sons and daughters of the youth who originally worked on the mural.  It’s an unknown history, a history from the bottom, it’s our history.  And that’s why standing on the side of the Tujunga Wash and looking down the dry flood control channel to the wall on the other side, what really grabbed my eyes and my heart was the smiling, determined and encouraging visage of Paul Robeson.  And then there was the sheer enormity of it!

Nine years passed, another trip to California, and this time on the advice of Susan california-2009-2Martinez we had one major objective in San Francisco — to see the hidden mural of Diego Rivera on a campus of the City College of San Francisco.  Coming in to the Bay Area this time we were picked up by Ray Boyington.  We stayed with him and Jack while on our various rounds, but as much as we appreciated the hospitality, we were much more delighted with their companionship around and about — in the first place Clarion and

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Ray and Jack, outside the taqueria where we had lunch

Balmy Alleys, both filled with colorful murals with Susan Martinez, who joined us for this excursion.  Then Ray drove us by way of Twin Peaks, overlooking San Francisco, to Chinatown and North Beach.  Diana and I walked around for a couple of hours while Ray went home, and then returned with Jack to join us with Diana’s cousins for dinner in Chinatown.

The trip to the theatre building where the mural is displayed was another issue.  In 2009, with the economic plight that the schools found themselves in after the economic meltdown, the building was only open by appointment (!) so we had to arrange to have it open.  Thanks to Susan, I  had made the connection and so we anticipated no problem except that the building was locked when we got there (we had difficulty enough finding the building in the first place).  Phone calls went unanswered, and Ray, Diana and I stood stymied outsidecalifornia-2009-4 the building perhaps for half an hour, while another couple, coincidentally up from Los Angeles, joined us to attempt to see the mural.  Finally the person came to let us in.  The panel shown here, the tree of liberty, really struck home with me.  John Brown’s fight against slavery has been for me a beacon in American history; his son Owen lived and was buried in the foothills above Altadena near Los Angeles; and in 2010 I made a special trip to visit his farm in upstate New York.  And Old Brown is the centerpiece of a panel that uses the famous words of Thomas Jefferson about the tree of liberty, something that Diego

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At Twin Peaks, Diana and Ray with San Francisco at their feet. One of my favorite photos.

Rivera latched onto, and even more to what the figure of Brown represented.

After renting a car in Oakland Diana and I drove to Santa Cruz where we stayed with Bill and Meggin. We convinced Bill to drive back with us to San Francisco the following night to a screening of the Red Poet, a documentary about the life of San Francisco poet Jack Hirschman.  I think he enjoyed himself — at least he had the good manners not to say no — but it was a great time for Diana and me to see Jack again and to hook up with some of the wonderful poets in the San Francisco scene that I have known.  Any thoughts going back to those days bring me to the time Sue Ying and I caught up with Jack in his haunt, the Café Trieste, and we wandered about North Beach, Hirschman’s booming voice singing out “Jackie and Susie and Lewie”!  Standing outside the place where the film had been shown, walking over to the car to head south, we had a chance to talk with Sarah Menefee, our dear friend and comrade poet, and embrace one last time before leaving.

Then, after lunch in Santa Cruz with the Harmons, it was off again to the Sierras, this

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Lunch with the Harmons at the Santa Cruz pier

time through Merced.  I knew this route well, having lived in Planada 7 miles East of Merced for one summer.  The towns along the way are etched in my memory, Los Banos, Dos Palos, El Nido (nothing more than a gas station) and Merced; and when we got to Merced we called Sal Sandoval, a physician friend who practices in Merced.  Some years ago we realized we had an acquaintance in common, a woman I had known from that summer in Planada.  At that time Flora Martinez lived in the labor camp for the workers of the Del Monte peach orchard.  The camp was an all year camp, permanent dwellings rather than simply for the migrant labor force. They were brick dwellings to, not the ramshackle clapboard that most camps were made of.  And they had trees and some residents had planted flowers.

Flora was one of a number of volunteers who helped out at the clinic and with the head start kids and other community activities, people I got to know that summer as we went our way in the Valley that summer.  Dora Bustos, who worked despite the difficulties she had walking, Vera Salcido, whose laughing countenance would bring brightness to anyone; Sarah Gracia, always gentle and kind;  all patient with us as we were more than anything under foot that season.  And of course the Rosales family, Hector, 19 years old and working with us every day, and his father, brother and sisters who worked in the fields, the family that invited us in to their household to share a meal after the long day’s work.  The memories of how we learned flood back.  So I had asked Sal to see if we could take Flora, Sal and his wife Gloria out to dinner, and he said he had arranged it.

Lew & Diana with community activist Flora Martinez, Planada, Ca. 7/16/09

Lew, Diana and Flora, it’s 8:45 and time to leave.

We met Sal and Gloria at their home and drove with them to Flora’s house, no longer in the camp.  And we were surprised by the fact that she had prepared dinner for us — it would have been an insult to insist at that point to take her out to dinner.  We were so flattered, and so we stayed and talked and I’m sure we made no sense, whatever it was we talked about, but the welcoming smile on her face remains with me.

I told her about a poetry book I’d read that mentioned the camp that we knew back then as the “Red Camp,” or “Montgomery Camp,” where many of the migrants lived who came up for the season in Planada.  Later, on the trip through Los Angeles, I stopped at Tia Chucha Café Cultural and ordered two copies of the book, one for Flora and another for Sal, when-living-was-a-labor-camp by Diane Garcia.  I wrote this letter to her when we got home, received a gracious letter in response and heard, through Sal, that the book was appreciated.  She was still active in community affairs even into her 90s. I was sad to hear a few years ago that Flora passed away.

We reached Los Angeles after a day trip to Giant Forest Village and the fruitless quest for a Basque restaurant, stopping first at Tia Chucha.  I’d known Luis Rodriguez since he was just out of high school, we worked together at the Guild Complex, but we’d never read poetry together.  This night at Tia Chucha we did read together in the open mic.  Then on to stay with Margie Ghiz, our good friend and comrade from the Midnight Special, who invited some bookstore people over for breakfast so we could catch up.

Outside Tia Chucha Centro Cultural Luis & Lew and Adam Leipzig and Lori Zimmermann, Sylmar, Ca. 7/17/09

Outside Tia Chucha with Luis Rodriguez, Adam Leipzig and Lori Zimmerman

The Midnight Special Gang for brunch at Margie's: Jim Grizzell, Frank Curtis, Lew, Lorraine Suzuki, Lisa Hartouni, and, standing in back, Margie Ghiz

Margie Ghiz in the back with Marcus Lopez; Jim Grizzell and Frank Curtis sit on my right, Lorraine Suzuki and Lisa Hartouni to my left.

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Ed Wong was one of my lab partners at medical school.  Susan and Ed were gracious enough to put us up for the night and to make an amazing dinner for us.

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Nancy Shinno and I were in the same class in medical school. This is Nancy and her daughter, Tomoko.  The last evening in Los Angeles was a dinner at a favorite Chinese sea food restaurant, the ABC, on Ord Street in Chinatown.

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Diana and artist Adrian Wong-Shue at dinner the last night.

When I worked at Midnight Special in 1983, we moved the store from Venice to Santa Monica.  Shortly after the store moved, Sue Ying curated an art show there — I think it may be the only one I ever helped hang.   The artist was Jamaican born Adrian Wong-Shue. The pieces were modestly priced for the most part (my budget could not afford any of it) and there were some pieces that I really liked.  The prices on these were far above the rest of the work on display, and I could see no relation between price, complexity, size or any rational reason I could give.  Finally curiosity got the best of me and I asked what led him to price these pieces as high as they are.  With the hint of a smile on his lips, he said there are some paintings he just doesn’t want to sell.

Our paths did not cross again until some years later I spotted a sign indicating he was having a show on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  When I got to the gallery, I found he had been there for the opening, but that had been a month or so earlier.  And then a mutual friend of ours came through Chicago and mentioned he had been asking about me.  And so we got in touch again.  He was still working in Los Angeles, and obviously very successful.  And in 2009, on my way to California, I made sure to contact him to see if we could connect.  The day that we stayed with Nancy Shinno and Patrick Burrows, I arranged for us to go see Adrian at his studio, and for Lorraine Suzuki and Nancy’s daughter Tomoko to meet us there.  I didn’t realize we were actually crowding into his home.

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Outside Wong-Shue’s studio:  Lorraine Suzuki and Diana in front, me, Nancy Shinno, Patrick Burrows and Adrian Wong-Shue in the back.  Tomoko took the photo.

Adrian showed us the work he had been doing and told us about how that first exhibit at Midnight Special took place.  Without a car and living in the Rampart district of Los Angeles where the rent was inexpensive for a living/work space, he went to school in Santa Monica at Antioch (where he also worked as a security guard).  He tried, as a student, to get galleries to take his work.  They refused.  He’d call making believe that he was an agent.  They still refused.  Everywhere he was refused, until finally a gallery on La Cienega (kind of the gallery row of Los Angeles) agreed to look at his work.  He gathered material into a portfolio, dragged it on public transportation from central LA to the west side, not an easy trek, and got to the front door of the gallery.  He rang the buzzer, the gallery owner looked at him, and told him no.

These were the circumstances under which he met Sue Ying, who told him without question he should display his work at Midnight Special.  Sue had met him because he was in a group of expatriates from the Caribbean, many of them students of the revolutionary process going on at that time, the University at Kingston, Jamaica being a center, with a peak developing in Guyana.

At dinner at the ABC Seafood Restaurant in L.A.’s Chinatown that night, the last night of the 2009 trip, the conversation was wide ranging about art, politics and life.  Standing outside the restaurant and bidding farewell, Adrian hinted again at a smile as he insisted that I have a talent of having a wonderful array of friends.  Diana and I knew we had been through an amazing 10 days.  The people we know make such a special, caring family.  It’s really important to understand that about the human family, “los pobres de la tierra” as José Marti calls us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mementos 9: Revisiting New Haven: Will The Wolf Survive

Mementos 9: Revisiting New Haven:  Will The Wolf Survive

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery in November, 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]

I wrote “Will The Wolf Survive” after a magnificent trip through Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and Upstate New York to New Haven, Connecticut.  The final destination was the 50th reunion of my James Hillhouse High School graduating class. In the piece, I wrote it was a quest for identity — certainly a matter of who am I now after 50 years away from high school; but much more importantly, who am I in relation to the native peoples who constructed massive burial and effigy mounds along the Ohio River, in relation to the fighters for the abolition of slavery memorialized at the John Brown Farm near Lake Placid. I want to find out who “my people” are.

I am not genetically descended from these people, but, as the Lakota saying goes, “We are all related.” In my view, we who are placed in the position of having to fight for the reorganization of society trace our descent from all those who have fought to make the social relations conform to the developing means of producing what we need to survive. In the final analysis we draw our strength from hundreds of thousands of years of learning how to live cooperatively, and all of our revolutionary struggles of the last 5,000 years can be seen as efforts to regain a new kind of cooperation and the joys that those societies propagated. Who are my people?  My people have always been the wretched of the earth. Please read “Will the Wolf Survive” here!

Here are just a few photos from that High School reunion:

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Jack Urquhart and me the night before the reunion dinner

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Ray Boyington, Diana and Jack having a grand old time

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Judith Fish, me and Elaine Marcus at a the reunion.  What’s significant about this is that the three of us had gone representing the school newspaper from Troup Junior High School to attend a journalism conference at Columbia University in New York. Dinner one night at the Rainbow Room! Missing from the picture is Russell Walter who had passed away.

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Yale University has a copy of the Gutenberg Bible on display. The technological leap that created this book was the forerunner of what created the possibility for mass communication in the vernacular languages of Europe, for the belief that the word of god is accessible to all, not merely a select group of clerics, that the world was understandable by all based on scientific investigation, and then to the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.  What hath technology wrought!

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The Amistad Memorial across from the New Haven Green, at the place where the African were imprisoned while their trial wended their way to the Supreme Court, where 2 years later they were exonerated and set free.  The figure is of Sengbe Pieh, known as Joseph Cinque.  The story of the slave rebellion can be found here.

 

Mementos 8: Joy of Family, Works in Progress

Mementos 8: Joy of Family, Works in Progress

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery in November, 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]

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I gave this poem to Courtney when she turned 21.  We were all in turmoil then.  Self described as the “baby sitter” for what turned out to be one set of our Evanston/Howard Ave. area neighborhood gangs, she had run afoul of some others and, one day, we found the lobby  in the building of our fourth floor  apartment covered with graffiti and with threats against her.  When I called the police to file a report, the landlord came over, the officer took his statement and buried mine (so that my report never existed).  Then the landlord, Aaron Kats, proceeded to insult Courtney and threaten me (with physical, gun violence — the man was an Eastern European who bragged of his underworld connections, disregard for law and order, except that which would protect his property).

We moved as quickly as we could.

David and Diana and I moved into an apartment on Pratt and Greenview in Rogers Park. The year was 1996, and Courtney began to move out on her own.  A year later we became grandparents for the first time, Courtney, living in Aurora, introduced us to Téa; and I, for the first time, had the chance to watch the miraculous creature a baby is, how every modality is a learning machine.  Experience transfixed me, more than any book ever had. And Courtney, who had never gotten a high school diploma, began to prepare to take a GED exam.  In January, 1999, Courtney pregnant with Zachary and sick with the flu, took her test and passed it.  Then, in April, Courtney, Téa and Zach drove with us to Waterloo to visit Greta and Mert.

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Greta, Diana, Téa, Courtney (Zachary hiding under Courtney’s coat)

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Téa surveys her surroundings and . . . is bored (April, 1999)

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Zachary

Zach

Zach grows up

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Courtney and Zach

 

 

 

 

John was born in 2002, but what seemed like finally a good partnership fell apart and Courtney was once again raising a family alone.  Things did not go smoothly.

How do you write about a life lived intensely, from crisis to crisis. Persistent, determined, bright, Courtney struggled as a single parent with three kids, still struggles. Mostly employed, but never employed enough to get out of debt, pay rent, buy enough food, afford health care.  Mirroring the irregularity of her precarious existence, Courtney shows the heights of creativity necessary to pick her way through the mine-field of poverty, falling into the depths of depression when circumstances gang up around her and block her way.  We’ve been lucky enough to be in a position to help when the depths were deepest; after all part of the joys of family is to alleviate the pain of those close to us.  But the other part that we have had to come to grips with is that we are living the life of a new section of society that is being born.  Yes even us, the old ones, Diana and I.

John Edgar Wideman wrote about it in a novel called Sent For You Yesterday.  This is an

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John Wideman autographed Sent For You Yesterday to me at Guild Books

image which has stayed with me for over 30 years.

“They used to put people on wheels and pull them apart. Pull the arms and legs out of the sockets just like a kid do a bug. Boiling people in oil and slamming their heads in a helmet full of spikes, and horses tearing men into four pieces and that wheel with ropes and pulleys stretch a man inch by inch to death. The rack, Albert said . . . They got us on a rack, John French.  They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected where its supposed to be. Ain’t even gon recognize our ownselves in the mirror.”

 

Courtney has her own image, a personal one, that comes from the character in the Lil Abner comic strip.  Joe Btfsplk, the world’s worst jinx, the well-meaning character who walks around with a rain cloud over his head.  Ever since I wrote  “Twenty-one Is,” we’ve been coming to grips with how one’s personal luck fits in the context of the relations of society.  The dialectic of taking responsibility for what is in your power to control, but not accepting guilt for what cards class society deals you.

That’s what John French is trying to negotiate that early morning when he waits on the corner to get a day-labor job as a paper hanger, feeling all the joints in his body aching, and trying to explain that to himself.  It’s the social relations that force him into the back breaking work.  And it’s the social relations that force Courtney into having to move every year or two, to struggle to get adequate care and counseling for the kids, to get food stamps when out of work, to avoid on pain of starvation and eviction, going to apply for welfare .  It’s the social relations that bring Diana and me to look at our social security to figure out if we have enough to pay rent this month, or pay the medicare premium.

“They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected to where it’s supposed to be.” This image split my brain 30 years ago.  How is it that such an image that is so horrible is at the same time so beautiful?  It is a Goya painting in words.  It fascinates. Your eyes keep returning to it.  Your fingers want to touch the blood to see if it is fresh, if it is real.  But it is real, because it captures the essence of what I am feeling each time I pay rent, each time Courtney loses a job. And each time I dream of diamonds out of broken glass, pearls growing around sand grains.

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One of my favorite pictures of Courtney, taken at a birthday party for Nelson Peery.  I love the bright-eyed intensity that the photo conveys. And she’s talking, undoubtedly a mile a minute!

 

 

 

 

The Fab Five! copy

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One of my favorite portraits of Téa

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Téa, almost 19 years old, joins me at the open mic at Royal Coffee

 

 

 

John

John

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That’s MY cake!

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John with three generations of Berek women — Susan, Diana and Courtney

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David, Courtney and Téa in the back, John and Zach in the foreground.

We are, all of us, a work in progress, hoping to become who we need to be, trying to figure out how we learn what we need, to negotiate our lives and contribute to a better world.

 

It’s an internal dialogue I’ve been having, externalized by Daniel Wolff’s great book, How Lincoln Learned to Read.  And while Daniel does explore how Lincoln learned to read in one of the portraits of this book, he’s really asking a much more profound question about what we need now, at this time, for a new kind or quality of education.  It very much relates to the fact that a new section of society is groping, mostly without knowing it, for how to remake the world in our own image for the interests of all, not just the few.

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

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

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery in November, 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]

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.

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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

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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.

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

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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

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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.

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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).

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Greta and Ronni at her 65th birthday party in Pittsburgh

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 November, 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.

* * * * * * * * * * *

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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)

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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

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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.”

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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 November, 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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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

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Page 2 of 3

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Nelson’s “benediction” p 3 of 3