Mementos 10: Three Authors And What My Comrades Have Taught me

Mementos 10:   Three Authors And What My Comrades Have Taught me 

[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]

Mementos recover our experiences, make them live again, ones we want to remember. So much of my life has been entwined with writers and writing, with revolutionary work, that everything is colored in those hues. I would not do what I have done over the years without the collective discussions with the comrades, who helped me understand what I had lived through and helped me understand what was to be done as different circumstances arose. Disagreement and struggle have all been part of the learning process. I owe everything to them, and to my comrade Diana, on whose companionship, encouragement, constant pushing me forward and provocative ideas I have come to depend as much as I depend on air to breathe. I cannot emphasize this point enough. So this section is about three of the thinkers I’ve met because of the work I have done among writers, because of what my comrades have taught me.

 

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My friend Anne and I got to the auditorium early to get a place on the waiting list. More than 1000 people had reserved seats, but we still had hope we’d get in, and our ticket said we were number 12 in line. We got in and quickly found seats in the fourth row, right in the center, and sat down. Audience was buzzing all around us. The speaker would be Jonathan Kozol, I pulled out my copy of his latest book and told Anne, “I’ll never get him to sign this today, Guess I’ll have to give up on that.”

The woman next to Anne leaned over to look at the book, Shame of A Nation. “Is it as good as Savage Inequalities,” she asked? “That book changed my life. My daughter just graduated as an elementary school teacher and I had to give it to her.

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Warmest thanks from a grateful friend and admirer — Savage Inequalities

I nodded vigorously, “I think it’s much stronger than Savage Inequalities, but let me tell you about his book that changed my life, Death At An Early Age.”

At that, the woman in front of me turned around and asked, “Is that an older book? It seems to me I read that, maybe about 30 years ago? Yes that was amazing!”

“That was his first book, his book about his own experiences teaching in segregated schools of Boston.”

“That’s what he writes about, education . . .”

“But you know,” I interjected, “between Savage Inequalities and his new book, Kozol wrote two remarkable books, Amazing Grace . . .”

“Is that the one you gave me,” Anne asked me, while the woman sitting next to the woman in front of me exclaimed, “Yes, that’s the one I read!”

“, , ,and Ordinary Resurrections, two books really about the beauty and resilience of young people despite the degradation forced upon them.”

* * * * *

This excited exchange is what books are about. . It took place in the third and fourth rows of the auditorium of the Harold Washington Library, March 16, 2006, as the audience walked in. Much of my life has been among the community of people who write, publish, sell and read books that change the world. I write about how literature participates in social transformation. I’m starting with Jonathan Kozol here, but I could be writing about any of dozens authors whom I’ve been lucky enough to have met.

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I “met” Jonathan Kozol in 1970, when I was a social worker working for the County of Los Angeles, assigned to the Pasadena “Adult Aids” office. This was my first permanent employment after I left medical school, after my temporary gigs had evaporated, after the Los Angeles Unified School District told me they did not want me to be a teacher.

Adult Aids shared an office with “Family Aids,” that is, those who provided Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the largest portion of the welfare system. There were two parts of the adult aids section: “Old Age Security,” for those who were ineligible for Social Security, or whose Social Security did not provide for all of their needs. These were the “deserving poor.” The other part of adult aids was called “General Relief” in Los Angeles County – it went by other names elsewhere – but it was aid for the “undeserving poor,” that is, up until the early 1970s primarily single men who could not get a job. In fact, most of the general relief was routed through the welfare office on 4th street on Skid Row, called by the welfare department the “Single Men’s Center.” For years people had been sent to the Fourth Street office to register for welfare, from which they would immediately be placed in a welfare hotel on Skid Row and then dispatched to what was euphemistically called “Work Project.” Gangs of men could be seen around the parks raking leaves or sweeping streets or, when the fall fire season began, on the front lines fighting conflagrations. When farm workers were needed, men would be dispatched to the tomato fields or the grape ranches. The pay was often in vouchers for food and housing; when it was in money, the rate was in the range of $109 per month. (Vouchers for food and rent were in the $15 a week range).

There were maybe a dozen of us in the general relief section, and we quickly got a reputation for being the radicals in the building. In the first place, we were the most completely unionized section of the workforce. Art Grubel, the Pasadena chapter president was a little shocked when, on my first day of work, I sought him out to join; later on Jack and Harry, two union members from the Single Mens’ Center, transferred in; Rita who came from a family aids background also transferred in; and the supervisor, James Elcock, had been promoted from the ranks and was also a union member.   (Pat Kuntz, the other supervisor, was not a union member; Jim Starrs, who supervised some of the OAS workers, was also a union member).

Even more important, we all believed that the welfare regulations were too stringent, and we got to know what the regulations actually were and how that differed from the even more restrictive practical policies. As a result, our office became known as the office that had figured out how to give away the most money per recipient, and the administration clamped down on us little by little.

Conversation with Elcock and Starrs often turned to the political, and ranged far beyond the problems of the welfare offices. My experiences earlier in the (also radical) Student Health Project and then with the Black Panthers and some of the East Los Angeles community organizations, my trip to Cuba, and the fact that the Los Angeles Unified School District rejected by job application because of my long hair and my beard placed me on an interesting playing field in relation to them and to my fellow workers. Mary Alice, for instance, who sat behind me in the office, with her flask of Jack Daniels in her drawer just in case, would torment me about my willingness to give away the County’s money. She traced it to my radical roots. Not the case with most of my fellow workers and with the two supervisors. It was in this environment that I discovered a best selling book of the day: Death At An Early Age. I devoured this book, written by a teacher in Boston, about my own age, could not stop talking about it. To this day, I feel the chills the children in his school felt, that winter day he describes, huddled in the corner of the auditorium assigned to them for their classroom, under a broken window with the wind howling outside. Reading this book introduced me to Jonathan Kozol and helped me understand something more how the social issues I was dealing with daily had a systemic origin. And of course, as a person who had hoped to be a teacher, the frustrations Kozol related, the discrimination against Black students he reported, and the fact that what he described, short of the howling winds and snow, resonated with my own experiences in Watts, California.

Nearly two decades later I’d started working at Guild Books in Chicago. One night, back at home listening to a call-in show on public radio, I heard Otis Thomas, a member of the Chicago-Gary Area Union of the Homeless talking about housing takeovers and wintering in Chicago weather. I called the station, said I had just come from the west coast where the weather is less brutal, but where in Los Angeles they had considered rounding up all the homeless and placing them on a barge in the ocean. Thomas said he’d spent winters in California, where you could still die of hypothermia sleeping outside.

A few months later, I heard that Jonathan Kozol was in Chicago promoting his new book, Rachel and Her Children. This book about homelessness was a departure for Kozol. I was angry that I’d heard about this so late and could not invite him to sign books at Guild. I called the Crown Publishers sales representative to see if there was any way we could get him to drop by the store and meet some activists involved in homelessness. I got a local number for him and persuaded him to stop by. Because Guild was also the center of “Artists Against Homelessness,” organized by artist and staff member Sue Ying Peery, we contacted some of the artists Sue Ying was working with. They came to the store when Kozol was due to arrive. Then I called Otis Thomas and others to ask them to come to meet Kozol. The result was something that could happen only at Guild.

In January, 1988, the New York Times ran a story that featured Otis Thomas. ”Why are people dying on the streets when there are perfectly good apartments available?” . . . ”People say we’re crazy out here on the streets,” said Mr. Thomas. ”Well, what’s crazy is sitting around and not doing anything about it. We’re not going to give up. We’ve had enough.” (Jan. 7, 1988: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/07/us/homeless-plight-protested-in-3-cities.html ) Otis had been homeless for about 2 years. He was tall, plain-spoken, gentle and anxious to exchange conversation with Jonathan. On his part, Kozol amazing-grace-coverwas eager to learn about the street-level situation in Chicago and delighted to meet people putting up tent cities, reclaiming abandoned housing, and protesting the thousands of empty public housing units with so many people out on the street. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimated the numbers of homeless in Chicago at about 20,000 that year, and the Chicago Housing authority admitted to a waiting list of 4,000 approved for entry to public housing, with over 3,000 empty units they called uninhabitable.

The morning ended with Jonathan giving me his telephone number in Massachusetts, the number of his assistant, and promising to do a reading for us his next time in Chicago. A year later, Rachel and Her Children came out in paperback. This time we were ready, and arranged for a reading. Of course we were able to bring the homeless activist community together for this event. Jonathan was soft-spoken, but when he started speaking there was a tremor, a fervor in his voice. He spoke about how, as a writer, he always hopes to convince people with his writing; he wants his writing to have an effect, to make a difference. And so it was with Rachel. He thought it would be a part of an effort to end this travesty of homelessness in a country that brags it is the richest in the world. But, he pointed out, a year after Rachel was published, and many lectures and travels since, he had found that the main consequence of the publicity is that a whole industry has arisen around homelessness. “There are even degrees in shelter management given in universities,” he said.

A few years later, June 5, 1995, House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich was scheduled to give a talk to the final lunch meeting at the American Bookseller’s Association annual convention, this time in Chicago. There had been considerable opposition to this among booksellers. Nevertheless, ABA director Bernie Rath defended his decision to invite him. I called John Donahue, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, to tell him about Gingrich’s appearance. Gingrich had issued his infamous “contract on America,” that included Medicare and Medicaid cuts as well as welfare and food stamp cutbacks. John called me back after consulting with his colleagues. Could I buy them tickets to the luncheon? Of course I could, if you can give me the money! Done! And so I purchased 10 tickets at about $30 a pop. Minutes into the luncheon the Coalition members present stood and shouted at Gingrich, stopping the presentations for about 30 minutes. The Chicago Tribune reported that 300 demonstrators marched outside the convention center as well.

Later that afternoon, as things were winding up outside and booksellers were saying their last good-byes to people they saw, Jonathan Kozol came up to check in (our paths had crossed earlier, because he had been at the convention to promote his new book, Amazing Grace, and he’d been on a breakfast panel). His curiosity had been piqued by the demonstration at the luncheon, and so he asked if I knew how the demonstrators had gotten inside. I told him that I had purchased tickets for them. He smiled, said he thought that might have been the case, and congratulated me: “Good work!”

* * * * * *

Jonathan Kozol returned to his main interest, the education of young children, with his next books, Savage Inequalities (1991), Amazing Grace (1995) and Ordinary Resurrections (2000). They each brought him back to Chicago, but only one while Guild Books was still open and could offer a platform for him to read and discuss. We took the opportunity to invite him to Michael Warr’s apartment in Wicker Park to meet with teachers and other community members. On the way to Michael’s apartment we chatted about who would be there and what they might expect; then about the children he had known in the Bronx; also, tenderly, about the health of his dog. But once we got there, in a packed, standing room only living room, Jonathan listened to what people told him about teaching and learning in the segregated Chicago public schools.

He leaned forward, intent, often cradling his chin in one hand, his elbow resting on his knee. His brow furrowed, his head shook in assent or in disappointment as he heard tales from the war zone of public education. Finally he called on a young woman, a student at a magnet school, Whitney Young High School, and his face changed, as it often did when he talked with or about young people, inviting her to give her experience. His voice was tender and welcoming. She spoke with passion, about how her working class parents had started her early with special school programs to take the tests to get into magnet schools from before she was in kindergarten, and because of that she had gotten into Whitney Young, one of the best public schools in the country. She said she was very grateful for her own education. But she was upset about so many of her friends in her neighborhood who did not have access to schools like this; or that the neighborhood schools (like Roberto Clemente, which was in her neighborhood) did not have anywhere near the programs that her school had. It wasn’t fair, she said. There is something wrong with this. Jonathan simply nodded. And the afternoon drew to a close.

Savage Inequalities echoed Kozol’s frustrations after publishing Rachel and Her Children. 25 years after Death at an Early Age was published, segregation by race, inequality by race and class was just as rampant, whole industries and a not-for-profit-industrial complex had grown up to profit on this inequality. When his next two books were published, Jonathan turned to a different face of what he had been exploring. What may be unique about Kozol is that he kept in touch with many of the families we met in his earlier books in the South Bronx. In Amazing Grace and Ordinary Resurrections, we see them later on, we look at their growth and how they have resisted being ground into oblivion. Their resistance, Kozol makes it clear, has nothing to do with any systemic aid that the children have received. Indeed, their survival is often in spite of the efforts to suppress them. In the pages of these books you can actually hear Kozol’s voice, tremulous and soft, just as he talked with and listened to the young woman in that Chicago living room: intent, pained but open and friendly.

A different Jonathan Kozol spoke at North Eastern Illinois University in 2000, after the publication of Ordinary Resurrections. Ringing accusations against a system that failed young people punctuated his presentation, and once again the hope that emerged because in some inexplicable fashion some young people managed to achieve resurrection; the implicit metaphor of children – children — having been crucified was not lost on his audience. Most of his audience of perhaps 500 were teachers or education or sociology students. Afterward, a sociology professor gathered about 20 students around a table in a nearby open area, and a heated conversation took place about the lessons of the presentation. Can the system be reformed? Do we need to start all over again? Who profits from it being the way it is?

Jonathan Kozol expressed frustrations that his work actually hadn’t changed the world, and perhaps this opens a conversation about what changing the world means, beyond reform. And that’s what I try to chip away at in my writing.

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In the spring of 1989 John Edgar Wideman read from his short story collection, Fever, at Guild Books. He read from the last story, the title story, held me spellbound. He told us that it would be part of a new novel he was writing, and the fever was a famous plague year

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May Damballah watch over you and yours — Damballah

in Philadelphia. I have this underlined in my copy of the book: “To explain the fever we need no boatloads of refugees, ragged and wracked with killing fevers, bringing death to our shores. We have bred the affliction within our breasts. . . Fever grows in the secret places of our hearts, planted there when one of us decided to sell one of us to another. The drum must pound ten thousand thousand years to drive that evil away.” It’s an allegorical fever that riddled Philadelphia as the 18th century drew to a close; but one that still stalks our streets.

The audience was small – it was generous of Wideman to write “Thanks for the party” in his autograph. One person listening intently had read Wideman before and came prepared with questions. One in particular was pointed. The listener, an African-American student, asked the author what he thought his responsibility as a Black writer was to the Black community. A few years later, by which time I’d been certified as a Wideman groupie, I was invited to a lecture he gave at Columbia College. The occasion was the publication of Philadelphia Fire, a novel that returned to late 20th century Philadelphia and the tenth anniversary of the day on which the Black mayor of the city of brotherly love bombed a block of row houses one of which was occupied by an activist group called MOVE. The novel is in three parts, each of which has a distinct musical style to the language. The middle section, also, is an autobiographical riff on when the author taught Shakespeare to Black students in the parks in the summer, and the particular play is The Tempest. Who Caliban really is plays an important part of this section and in some way inhabits the rest of the novel.

Afterward, I joined a few Columbia faculty and grad students at dinner with Wideman. One student asked a question about Shakespeare and about Wideman’s use of language, which reminded me of the question asked at Guild. Why Shakespeare in a novel of Black Philadelphia? The answers to both questions broke the boundaries that separates one genre from another and stretched the complaints about cultural appropriation. English, Wideman pointed out, is his language and he has the obligation to make the most of all his heritage, whether it is the language of the streets or the language of the Bard. It’s all his, and his responsibility to stretch that to its limits. I still find Philadelphia Fire the most exciting of John Edgar Wideman’s work because of this use of Shakespeare and because of the rhythmic cadences that mark each section – and because of the way his own biography sneaks into places of the novel, not just the teaching segment, but also basketball and his relationship with some of the political forces in Philadelphia. One of the most artful political novels I’ve read.

I’m not sure when this next conversation took place, it was in a crowded anteroom and again at a reading that Wideman had just done. The poet, Sterling Plumpp was telling me his impression of Wideman. Sterling had been one of the leaders in the committee to defend Dennis Brutus, the South African poet, from being deported to his certain imprisonment under apartheid. He also gave a very fine critique/review of the Arnold Rampersad two volume biography of Langston Hughes, helping us to understand Hughes relation both to the Black Arts movement and to the Black (especially Southern) working class. Stuffed in that lobby, Sterling didn’t need to twist my arm to convince me: John Edgar Wideman is one of the best American writers of our generation. I think I’d known that 10 years earlier when I first read his Sent For You Yesterday, returned over and over to the passage where John French muses over the words of Albert Wilkes, “They’ve got us on a rack.” That has epitomized, in six words, how I have experienced the world, how it seems to me Jonathan Kozol has described the lives of the children he has met.

* * * * *

In 1991 Leslie Marmon Silko published a book she had been working on for 10 years. Compared with the spare work of John Edgar Wideman and with her own Ceremony, a slim volume that had become a staple of school reading lists, Almanac of the Dead is a huge panorama of a novel encompassing more than 750 pages and a hemispheric landscape. autographsDiana and I read the book – we each had our own copy because it was so riveting, and because we had decided early on that it was a book we’d want to lend to others – and the day I finished the book I was on my way to work at Guild. I was so wrapped up in the text that I missed the Fullerton stop on the Purple Line express. By the time I’d realized this, I looked at my watch and noted that I was typically early. I made a split decision and happily rode into the loop and back to the bookstore by which time, 30 minutes later, I had finished the book.

Much of my memory of this novel is of what was happening at the time in the real world. We had a book discussion group at the bookstore and those of us who had read the book would look at each other after hearing the news that day and say, “Almanac of the Dead,” and we’d exchange knowing glances, shake our heads. Zapatistas, the Union of the Homeless, traffic in human organs, all the way to Standing Rock and Blackwell, all of these “appear” in the book. Brecht described art not as a mirror to reflect reality but as a hammer to shape it. And that was how we saw Silko’s book, which reflected reality but gave us a door to imagine what reality might otherwise be like.

In February, 1993 we hadn’t yet made our decision to close Guild. But the handwriting was on the wall. Our last day was at the end of May, but this February 17, Leslie Marmon Silko was in Chicago and sat at Guild’s sales counter to sign books. I can’t remember who was there aside from Diana and I, but when we handed her our books, almost falling apart from rereading, dog-eared and underlined, I remember the glow that spread across her face. She wrote along with the autograph: “When I was writing ALMANAC all those 10 years, I think I relied on energy and enthusiasm of readers like you – somehow the support travelled back through time to help sustain me.”

 

 

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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 7: The Joy of Family, Stories of David

Mementos 7:  The Joy of Family, Stories of David

[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]

JoAnn held an annual Thanksgiving dinner for all of us expatriates (many from Los Angeles) without a Chicago family, where her legendary brownies were nearly matched by stacks of home baked pies and, of course, a huge turkey.  It was a family get-together for many engaged in political work, an opportunity to share conversation, watch a movie or a football game, and chat with Nelson and Sue.  In the summer of 1991 Sue had finally broken through my anxiety and persuaded me to take Diana out to coffee, then to dinner. In the early fall I went first to Ann Arbor for the Great Lakes Booksellers Association meeting, and from there to Waterloo, Ontario to visit Greta.  There I confided in her what a wonderful person Diana was, and how I hoped she would get to think I was too.  By November I was ready to ask her to join my Chicago revolutionary family (many of whom she already knew).  Courtney came with us, and this is the first photo I have of us together.

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Courtney, Diana and Lew sitting on a couch at JoAnn’s and Mike’s Thanksgiving 1991

Taking Diana home one night, late, we stopped at her apartment and noticed a homeless woman in front of the building across the street.  We talked with her for a while and then I walked Diana to her front door.  On the way home she had warned me that we should go slowly, be careful.  I agreed, and then I kissed her good night.  Later that December, close to Christmas, Diana got a call from her first husband, Matt, who was in crisis with their son David, and wanted to send him to Chicago immediately.  The fact that I didn’t run the other way as soon as I found out convinced Diana that we should plunge ahead and we were living together in our own apartment in South Evanston in March of 1992.

At one stroke I had two teen children, without ever having to go through diapers.

David, younger than Courtney, came to us from his dad as an unaccompanied child from Washington, D.C. Diana was working three part-time jobs at the time, jobs that were inflexible in her hours, while I could get away from the bookstore.  So when we found out David was coming, I drove out to O’Hare to pick David up.  Airplane staff were making him as comfortable as possible for a child who must have felt as unwanted as anyone could.  And then there I was, someone he did not know, had never seen and would quickly resent for taking his father’s place.  On my part I could not figure out what I would say when I met David.

I’ve told Diana that one thing I am grateful for is that without the experience with David and Courtney, I would never have experienced family, all that it means, its joys and its pains, and of course grandchildren with those joys and pains.  I will not hide the fact that there have been a lot of pains, but those pains are life, and these pictures, while recording the pleasure, still bring to my mind the dark side of pleasure as well.

* * * * * * * *

In June of 1992 Diana and I woke up one morning and decided it would be a good day to visit the marriage court.  For our honeymoon we took David camping, the first of many, to Door County, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, through Traverse City Michigan in search of the perfect cherry pie during Cherry Festival, into Wisconsin across the Mississippi to Minnesota and Iowa, across Michigan to Waterloo, Ontario to visit Greta.

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We were all much younger then

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In Door County

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With Caesar, Grandma’s golden retriever

In September Diana and I celebrated our marriage with friends and family at Margate Park.  Then, in winter after the Xmas rush of the bookstore, we had our usual post holiday party, this time at Nancy Singham’s apartment, where Joyce and Nancy presented us with a special map to find our way back from cloud nine.  We have never needed the map.

* * * * * * * *

This Story Begins . . . [I wrote this after meeting David for the first time]

The little brown-skinned boy standing in front of me is David.  I’m in the children-who-came-alone section of the American Airlines terminal at O’Hare.  It’s June of 1992. David is 11. David came 12 hours earlier than expected.  The airport, unable to reach Diana, finally three hours later found me, sitting at my desk.  Perhaps I was laughing with Nancy Singham about some funny newspaper article.  Perhaps I was having a late lunch. Maybe I was doing something important that bookstore owners are supposed to do:  worrying about making payroll this week; buying new books to restock shelves; planning author readings to bring more people into the store; telephoning a local homeless organization planning a major event to publicize their new poetry chapbook.  Perhaps I was taking a nap.

The telephone call woke me, whatever I was doing.  In minutes I had left a message for Diana and was out the door, to the last minute borrowed car, to the airport. Diana came shortly thereafter.  But the first face he saw, that knew who he was, was mine.  So I introduced myself:  My name is Lew.  And that’s when this story begins.

No.

David is Diana’s and Matt’s son.  The story began then. Twelve years earlier, or maybe more, maybe genetically more, or maybe the homunculus paradox defies a beginning. Perhaps, where the story “begins” is a semantic blind alley.  And now I begin to question why I’m searching for the beginning in the first place.  It’s convenient to draw a line and say: “My story begins here.”

But even my story with David doesn’t really begin here, at the airport. Maybe it began with my first real consciousness that Diana had children.  Maybe the first night, in my apartment, when Diana spoke to Matt under his threat to send David to her on the next plane the very next day.

But, I ask myself, if I begin this story here, at one of the various stages of getting to know David that I experienced, am i cutting out a whole wedge of David’s existence?I think it might be fairer to tell the story beginning with David in second grade; with David starting fires; with David breaking his arm riding a bicycle and not telling anyone. I never met those Davids.

But the small, brown-skinned boy staring at me, into me, silently reading me at the airport is a David who developed out of the Davids to whom I’ve alluded.  And now begins our story.

I didn’t exactly appear at the airport a tabella rasa, a blank slate. I came a 50 year old, recently-married-for-the-second-time-man. I came a man who despaired of having a “family” — children to raise for example. I came a recently divorced man, yearning to complete his life. I stumbled to the airport, awkward, realizing that I was about to meet a young man who knew nothing about me, except that I had (at least) intercepted his mother in her already estranged relationship with her former husband. I reasoned that he must feel that it was my fault that Diana and Matt could not reconcile.  I stepped into that holding area acutely aware of the concern and anguish that must be coursing through David’s mind about how we abandoned him.  I stepped into the holding area filled with hope, with optimism, with fear and uncertainty.  Worrying: do I shake hands as in a formal introduction? do I hug this frightened stranger? Should my first words be: “Don’t worry, Diana is on her way”?

And that’s when I said, “Hello, my name is Lew.”

Since then, since David and I stared at each other and made a halting approach at each other, made a handshake and a welcome, we’ve played a little game together. From my side of the game board, call it  “I wonder what he’s thinking.”  Sometimes the game expresses genuine curiosity, as in “I’d like to get inside his head and look out.  I wonder how I would see the world.”  Sometimes the game expresses my anxiety, as in “I hope I haven’t made him hate me.”  Sometimes in frustration, “I want to get inside his head because I can’t understand how he could possibly have done what he did.”  Sometimes my game bursts beyond the rules, out of bounds of mere thought: red-faced, knit-brow, gnashed teeth anger, my hands tremble with fear of what David might do, what I might do.

This story is a way to approach learning to live with all the complex Davids that confront me.  About David’s fears and about my fears. David’s love and mine. David gave me these stories, surely as he gave his life into our hands.  In that exchange, the stories became mine to discover, and as I discover them, I give them to you.

* * * * * * * * *

Chopping Vegetables [Written 3 or 4 years later, when David was at Sullivan High School and we lived across the street from the school on North Shore and Greenview. David had been out all night and not returned home.]

In a new book called Blue Jelly, the author writes of her sense of loss and finding solace in the task of canning fruit.  I stand at the window chopping vegetables.  A catalpa tree now shades my third floor kitchen window.  It’s almost a fourth floor apartment, and “now” because a month ago I questioned if the tree still lived.  This is our first spring in this apartment.  Catalpas sprout leaves later than most trees. And so, when in mid May little green nodes appeared on the bare twigs, we opened a bottle of wine and celebrated. But today David did not return home.  This story is about David.  Every story is about David.

I stand at the window next to the sink chopping vegetables with a Chinese cleaver. The zen of salad-making soothes the agitated soul. Each vegetable requires a different kind of stroke and preparation.You don’t strip the fibrous strings from a celery stick the same way you strip the strings from a pea pod. Cutting a tomato and a cucumber are sensual, but in different ways. Have you ever, for example, watched the sticky sap from a cut cucumber attempt to bind the wound?

I stand at my third floor kitchen window, chopping vegetables, looking at the green world below and around, listening to the birds singing in the catalpa.Today again the robin carols.  Yesterday, perhaps some finches. At another time a cardinal gave its shrill call. The zen of salad making is more than the art of chopping. I lose myself each day in the sounds and visions surrounding this apartment, sometimes dreaming, other times dreading.  Today I notice the cottonwoods are shedding delicate bolls to the gentle breeze’s play.  Today I notice buds on the catalpa trees.  The spring succession of blossoms proceeds, and soon the trees will leaf out to their fullest.  Tulip trees have yet to blossom.

My window, that I stand at chopping vegetables, opens into the embrace of catalpa branches. Once a short time ago they were bare. Then the twigs took on a green  tinge as tiny buds emerged.  They became small, barely noticeable leaves.  That they would ever become the kind of leaf you would imagine one could roll cigars in — well, that would be a miracle.  Of course one doesn’t roll cigars in catalpa leaves.  And in mid June they haven’t reached that size, yet.  But it is a miracle.

I stand at my window wondering what is a miracle, really. Another new book The Bible Code claims to analyze the Bible mathematically to come up with predictions. It’s author is an intellectual twin of the modern day mystic who claims to see the Virgin Mary’s image in the light reflected through spilled corn oil on a kitchen window sill not unlike mine.

An old story haunts me.

It’s 1970.  I have a real job. I get to take a vacation, for the first time.  I drive up to Vancouver from Los Angeles, along the breath-taking coast much of the way. After camping inland on the Russian River one day, I head north around historic Fort Ross and pick up three hitch-hikers: a man and woman in their early twenties and their young child, perhaps three years old. We rode together through redwood country.  I had a harmonica with me that I’d hoped to learn something about.  With company in the car, I talked instead about the miracle of redwood trees.  That they even existed seemed a miracle to me, even with my scientific training.  This young man would have nothing to do with miracles.  Science, he said, explains everything.  This between choruses of a song played frequently on the radio, Neil Young crooning “Down by the river, I shot my baby.”

Perhaps it was a miracle that we survived that moment, camped by the Trinity River, he, his partner, their child, and I.  To this day I wonder if he “shot his baby” later.  And which was his “baby,” mother or child?  That the redwoods survive may also be a miracle.  One miracle that did not happen: I did not get to know my harmonica.

I stand at the window chopping vegetables for a salad that I believe will be miraculous. It will be filled with red and green peppers, red and green leaf lettuce, jicama, tomatoes, celery, pea pods, walnuts, cucumber, green onions, cilantro, carrot, for and perhaps mushrooms.

Standing at my window, I assert that I do believe in miracles. They are not the reflections-in-the-corn-oil kind though. That the catalpa leaf grows like it does. That red and green peppers have such different tastes. That bok choy tastes so clean. That David will return home.  That things grow and develop, sometimes even in spite of what is done to them.  Sometimes in spite of what they do to themselves.

* * * * * * * * * * *

In 2016, David is no longer the small boy at the airport, and I’m glad to say I feel a certain ease with him that I’ve never felt before.  He and his partner Jeni have left Green Bay and moved in with us while they look for an apartment.

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David in Rockford

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Diana and David in Janesville, WI

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David and Diana in our living room at Xmas

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David, Lew and Jeni.  David without hair.

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Navea on the left and Dayshawn on the right (David’s children) flank Zachary in the center and John in back (Courtney’s boys).

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Dayshawn

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Navea

Mementos 6: A Tale of Four Bookstores, Following Dreams, Remembering Charlie Clements and Eduardo Galeano

Mementos 6: A Tale of Four Bookstores, Following Dreams, Remembering Charlie Clements and Eduardo Galeano

[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]

At 71 my father quit working and decided to follow his dream. George and my mother, Anna, moved to Los Angeles to be with Greta’s family and with me. The year was 1961. I left to go to college at USC the year before. Uprooted from connections to the Rosenbaum

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There sits George, perched atop the gear wheel, a location unknown.

family and friends in New Haven devastated him. Selling the house and packing our belongings exacted a corresponding physical toll. The person who walked off the plane and into my arms in Los Angeles was not the father I’d left behind.

There was his dream though. The 15 years of employment at Mayer Rogol’s clothing store in Seymour had been steady work, but the wages were meager and George chafed at working for Anna’s family. At home we were surrounded by books, most of which had come from what my father saved from his Corner Bookstore, part of a legendary used book section in New York. They rested comfortably in oak bookcases I remember him building in the 1940s. The only power tool he had was a drill; he fashioned them with hand tools alone. He came west hoping to use the proceeds from the sales of

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George’s Corner Bookstore, 120 4th Ave. in 1930s

the house to purchase a bookstore again. To do something he thought was really useful, to do something that gave him satisfaction.

We visited used bookstores around the city together – Partridge had just opened on Hollywood Blvd, right next to Pickwick’s emporium of books; we looked at Yesterday’s Books crammed into a dusty, corner space on Alvarado. And after just a few looks we realized that the dream was a fantasy: there was nothing that even the entire $20,000 could purchase. The light disappeared from his eyes, the walk slowed, and George settled into 5 years of disappointment and Parkinson’s syndrome before he died in a nursing home, debilitated with a stroke.

* * * * * * * *

Maybe my love of books came from watching my father’s hands craft those bookcases and wonder about the magic that they held. I adored one of the books on the shelves:  Jack London’s Call of the Wild.  The story of Buck resonated with me — early on it was Buck, the hero, who captured my imagination, but I think as I grew older I identified with the Thornton character and his relationship with Buck — and I read it over and over again.

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“Greta Rosenbaum”  inscribed in George’s hand on the inside front cover

That earned great praise from Anna (another reason for me to care so much for the book). Soon I started scouring used bookstores to find treasures.  From somewhere I knew that used books contained special value, though I did not know what it was.  By then I had begun reading philosophy, and especially Bertrand Russell, whose penetrating criticisms of organized religion were eye-opening. And then came my passion for Shaw, his prefaces as much as his plays. Visiting Greta in Los Angeles during summers in the 1950s, I made a habit of visiting the Goodwill Store in the downtown area as often as possible, where I’d pick up used editions for a buck or less.  I’d proudly show my acquisitions to my father, who dismissed them and therefore my ability to recognize what was good (valuable).  And then, for high school graduation, Greta gave me a complete set of Shaw plays.

* * * * * * * *

I was in my second year of medical school when my father died, and two years later I quit school. In the mid 1970s I settled in at the Midnight Special Bookstore.  We moved the store from its tiny Venice location to the third street mall in Santa Monica, vastly improving both its visibility and its size.  We immediately began planning to take advantage of the new space we had, with author events and readings and special programming around social issues. The first opportunity we had came in the spring of 1984. By then, the Midnight Special was renowned for its selection of Latin American literature and history, especially for its concentration on Central America, then in the throes of conflagration.

Our store best sellers included any new book on El Salvador. Photographer Susan Meiselas published a book of her work, Nicaragua June, 1978- July, 1979, (Pantheon, 1981) which followed the revolution to the overthrow of Somoza and the triumph of the Sandinistas. She followed this up with a book on El Salvador, the work of 30 photographers. Grove Press documented the struggles in the countries of Central America with a series of books that quickly rose to the level of our best sellers. In 1984, then, it only made sense for Gayle Browning, who represented Bantam Books, to talk with us about hosting an event with

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The book cover of Witness to War.

Charlie Clements. Bantam, mainly a mass market publisher, had just published in hard cover Clements’ Witness to War, the account of his journey from the US Air Force pilot in Vietnam to serving as a non-combatant medic with the rebels in El Salvador. After leaving El Salvador, he testified before Congress and traveled across the country talking about the brutality of US foreign policy in El Salvador.

Born in 1946, Clements had graduated from the Air Force Academy and spent a few months in 1967 at UCLA. There he saw the campus vigils about the war escalating in Vietnam, perhaps even the same demonstrations on Wilshire Boulevard that I had seen and taken part in. Perhaps seeds of his future disillusionment were planted here, but at the time he looked at the protesters as misguided, and he went on assignment to Vietnam. After about 9 months and 50 missions, he had grown to recognize the immorality of the war effort, especially because of government lies about military operations in Laos and Cambodia. He refused to fly any more missions, was returned to the U.S., confined to a psychiatric ward and discharged with a 10% mental disability. He became a physician and, in 1980, while treating undocumented immigrant farm workers in California’s central valley, he heard from his patients about the growing U.S. involvement in the war in El Salvador. He feared another Vietnam was developing there. He volunteered his medical assistance in the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) controlled territory, and entered the Guazapo front in El Salvador in March 1982.

During the civil war in El Salvador, Charlie Clements worked as a physician in rural villages that were bombed, rocketed, or strafed daily by their own government. One day a peasant asked, “Why don’t you carry a weapon like the other doctors?” Clements explained that when he returned from the Vietnam War he became a Quaker and that Quakers believe in non-violence. The peasant shook his head in disdain saying, “You gringos are always concerned about violence done with machetes or machine guns. I used to work on the hacienda,” he said, pointing into the distance. “I fed the dogs there [in the hacienda] bowls of meat and milk even when my own children were hungry. If the dogs were ill, I took them to a veterinarian, but my children died without ever seeing a doctor. You will never understand violence or non-violence until you understand the violence to the spirit from watching helplessly as your children suffer.”

“Activists in the US [Clements wrote] . . . have always had to jump in front of the ship of state to keep it on a self-correcting course. Whether the issue was slavery, labor rights, women’s suffrage, civil rights, Vietnam, Central America, or Iraq, it is the determined protests of those who will settle for nothing less than justice or peace that have altered the course of history. The moral arc of the universe doesn’t bend toward justice by gravity.”

http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/portraits/charlie-clements (supplementary information from an interview with Charlie Clements https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYCge-l-GRU)

 

Of course we jumped at the chance to host this book party. Who else had the ties to communities as well as universities to bring an audience for an author like this? And then we realized what we had done. We had never had a publication for a hard cover book (most of our customers were paperback readers). We’d never done a signing with a major publisher. We had never done cooperative advertising with a publisher before. No matter our vision for what we would like to be, inseparably connected to the cultural life of the Los Angeles basin, our insularity as a political bookstore limited our possible outreach. The day of the signing I paced the length of the store in high anxiety, prowled the front of the store to monitor that we actually had customers coming to hear from Charlie Clements,

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Charlie Clements

and then when the youthful looking physician, four years my junior, walked in the door and we seated him at the folding table piled high with his Witness to War, when he began to talk about his experiences — the 50 some people listened in rapt attention. Then people lined up, around the wooden table shaped, we thought, like an amoeba to have their books signed.

 

I stood to the side, watching the flow, when one person stepped out of line to talk with me. Diane Glinos was a student at UCLA and a committed participant of the Nicaragua solidarity work. She had taken flyers about the event to her school and to the organizations in which she was active. She had an earnest expression on her face, her dark, intense eyes told me she had something important to tell me, when she whispered, “Lew, you should offer to introduce Jackson Browne to Charlie Clements.”   My quizzical look as I looked around convinced her to tell me that he was standing in line. No one in line wore a placard saying “I am Jackson Browne” and I had no idea what he looked like, so I suggested that she might want to do that herself.

 

Diane thanked me for the offer, but thought it would be more appropriate for a representative from the bookstore to do this. She was gracious enough to point him out to me (without making me feel any more stupid than I already felt). I asked Jackson if he would like me to introduce him to Dr. Clements, but he told me he already knew Clements and would wait his turn in line to say hello. But, he said, “I’d like to see if you can get a book for me. It’s a book of photos about Nicaragua. . .” and before he could get any further I told him we had the book in stock and how many would he like, and would he prefer hard or soft cover. On his request I brought two copies of Susan Meiselas’ book to him. On that day, he may not have bought anything other than these and copies of Charlie Clements’ book. But after this, Jackson Browne made many visits to the Midnight Special to find the reading material he needed, to find out the information he could not find elsewhere. Of 220px-jackson_browne_-_lives_in_the_balancecourse now I had to listen to Jackson’s music, so a bought his new release, Lives in the Balance.  The music just reverberated within my brain, “There are lives in the balance, there are people under fire, there are children at the cannon,” and then the magical pipes, the Latin phrasing of the the instruments.  So when Jackson called one day to ask about some books, I had to tell him what I thought about the album.  This precipitated one of the most influential conversations I’ve had.  I admit that until then I hadn’t much considered the artistry of rock and roll.  Jackson forced me to think of the seriousness with which rock and roll musicians pursue their craft.  And I’ve thought about that afternoon often ever since.

* *  * * * * * *

Eduardo Galeano sat at my dining room table in my Chicago apartment on Lill Street one block away from Guild Books, pen poised and a stack of books to be signed at his side. Breakfast consumed, he had reluctantly agreed to sign some books in advance of his appearance at the bookstore later that Saturday, 1988.   He was anxious, it seemed, and we had been warned that his health was mending after some heart issues. We didn’t press him to sign books, but were delighted when he agreed with our suggestion that some folks might just want to purchase a signed copy without talking with him.

I sat mesmerized with the tremendous accomplishment of getting Galeano to Guild; even more amazed by the good fortune of giving up my bedroom to him and my relocating to the living room couch. How did that happen?

Three years earlier, in 1985, I’d been a bookseller at Midnight Special Books in Santa Monica, California. I had done many things at the bookstore, but in 1985 I was mostly the person in charge of ordering books. While the consolidation in book selling and publishing had been well underway, it was still a few years before the tremendous expansion of super stores. It was still important for sales representatives to call on booksellers for book orders.

Doug Hodges, who later became a national sales manager for Random House, s0ld the Random House catalogue to me then. He always came to see me early in the season. He told me I prepared more thoroughly than any of his accounts for our meetings, and, even with the smaller number of imprints under the Random House rubric than I would later have to deal with, meeting with Doug could be an all day event. Start at 9 AM, break at noon for lunch, then come back to wrap up from 1 to 3. All independent bookstores relied heavily on Vintage paperbacks, Pantheon literary and political titles. Less important for us were the books in the venerable Knopf imprint, the Random House titles and Crown and Villard were least important. Nevertheless I always combed through each of those catalogs to find the gems, which was one reason Doug came early to see me. He said he learned a lot about the importance of some of the books that no one else knew about. This day in 1985 was going to be one of those days.

In the Pantheon catalog I found Eduardo Galeano’s Genesis, “the extraordinary first volume of a great and ambitious project” reads the flap of the book jacket. This is probably part of the catalog copy that leaped out at me. And the first thing I said to Doug as we sat down to the Pantheon list was: “We want Galeano in our store when he tours for the book. He has GOT to come here. No place else in Los Angeles area would know what to do to promote this book or who has the connections to get people to hear him.”

Hodges sat dumbfounded. “Who is he?” Doug asked.

I told him about how a generation of Mexican and South American intellectuals had cut their critical thinking eye-teeth on Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (two decades later Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would choose to present a copy to recently elected President Barack Obama); how that was the most consistent best selling book on Latin

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Eduardo Galeano signed the third volume of the Memory of Fire trilogy at my breakfast table in 1988

American history in that section of the store; how the most important Latin American studies departments/teachers in the Los Angeles area from UCLA to UC Irvine to Cal State Los Angeles relied on that book, all of whom we knew and to whose students we therefore had a direct line. And when I got through Doug reiterated that was why he came to the Midnight Special first. He had never heard of Galeano, he now had something to tell other booksellers when he showed the catalog.

But Random House was not planning on touring him, it was not in their plans at all, he was too unknown in the US, Random House could not afford to bring him from Uruguay where he lived. Excuse after excuse met my rants and raves and criticism of their short sightedness.

Random House did not bring Galeano to the US in 1985.

The situation repeated itself, complete with rants and raves and refusals from Random House in 1987, when the second volume, Faces and Masks, was published. This time, however, Doug knew who Eduardo Galeano was and thought he would pre-empt my tantrum by telling me in advance that Galeano was not coming to the United States.

At the end of 1987 I packed my Toyota Station Wagon with its rebuilt engine and its 200,000 miles and drove to Chicago to join the Guild Books staff. One of the first sales representatives I met was Random House’s Mary McCarthy. While poring over the Pantheon catalog I saw that Galeano’s third and concluding volume of the Memory of Fire Trilogy, Century of the Wind, would be published that season (1988). I guess the cumulative brow beating Random House reps had gotten from the likes of Richard Bray at Guild and me at Midnight Special must have taken its toll on the Random House touring brass.

This time Galeano would come to the US.  Richard had come to know Eduardo Galeano’s agent in New York, Susan Bergholz, who insisted that Galeano needed peace and quiet while he was here, recuperating from his illness. Some place away from what she anticipated would be a flurry of activists tiring him out and keeping him from getting the rest that he needed on what looked like a very strenuous tour. He hid out in my bedroom.

So there he was, in my dining room, at the table at which he had just finished breakfast, signing books, including all three volumes of the trilogy, Open Veins, Days and Nights of Love and War, and a copy of each signed to me, all signed “gratefully, mil mil abrazos,” and more importantly with the caricature of the pig with the flower in his mouth, a trademark he said he reserved for special autographs.

But, he said, “I will not read.” OK, we thought, we don’t want to press him on this, make him angry or more anxious. Yes bookstore patrons, our bookstore patrons, want the author to give them a taste of what is in the book and talk about it.   But here is a man who is clearly nervous about the upcoming event. So we backed off, and Eduardo went for a walk, returning directly to the bookstore an hour or so before the event was to start, declaring himself willing to sign more books in advance if we wished. And yes, we wished.

As he signed, the people began to arrive for the book signing. He was seated in the back room, but heard the commotion beginning to build, glanced into the store area, and said, “I think I will read. But I left my book with my notations in your apartment.” I ran to the building, ran up to the third floor apartment (yes, we had cleared with his agent that walking up 3 flights would not be too strenuous for Eduardo), found his book and ran back with it in time to start the program.

The crowd hung on his words, as he read in English but also in Spanish, and then answered questions, altogether about an hour and a half, and then began signing books, as the line snaked throughout the store. He talked with each person as much as the person wanted; he took pictures with the customers and their children. I stood at his side doing the task that all booksellers do in this situation: open the books to the pages preferred for the signature. And about 45 minutes into the signing ritual Eduardo turned to me with a broad but incredulous smile: “They like me. They really like me!”

Before he left, Eduardo toured the 3,000 square feet of the book store and spent some time

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The Haymarket monument sculpted by Mary Brogger, located just north of Randolph on DesPlaines. An abstracted wagon/platform now marks the spot from which the speakers addressed the crowd in Haymarket Square.

looking at the political and labor posters we had for sale, on display in a rack. He fingered the display, took some notes, and left. The next morning friends of ours recorded an interview with him on video and took him in search of Haymarket Square, a search that proved unsuccessful.

Four years would pass before Eduardo would return to Guild. In May, 1992 my divorce from my first wife was finally becoming a reality, my marriage to my second wife a month away, and the book Eduardo would be signing would be The Book of Embraces. The existence of the bookstore itself was tenuous as both a Barnes & Noble and a Borders had opened in the neighborhood and as the neighborhood became less affordable for our regulars. Our core clientele were moving away. We had to close one third of the bookstore and the Guild Complex, the not-for-profit literary organization we had spawned to take up the promotion of literary events, had to move (they occupied a performance space in the South Loop called The Edge of the Lookingglass. This is where Eduardo was going to read.

This time Eduardo stayed in a hotel off Michigan Avenue. We agreed to meet in the lobby of his hotel. There were some items he had to buy while he was on tour, and we could talk while I accompanied him on his rounds. We went to one of the “Magnificent Mile’s” most appealing shopping attractions, the Water Tower Place, where Eduardo wanted to pick up some CDs for his daughter and where I knew there was a small CD store. He picked up a couple of classical CDs and a jazz CD, off the sale rack at the front of the store, but then was stymied in finding the CD his daughter wanted.
Eduardo walked to the checkout counter and asked the sales clerk, in faltering but carefully pronounced words, “Do you have anything by the [clearly and slowly enunciated] Butt Hole Surfers”? A quizzical and sheepish look spread over his face as he said it, almost apologetic. But the clerk was the one who apologized, saying that he wished the store would carry them, but probably the best place to try would be Wax Trax Records (which was right across from the Guild Book Store!).

That evening at the Guild Complex at the Edge of the Lookingglass, Eduardo Galeano read to an even larger crowd than he had the first time in Chicago. And among the things he read was this tribute to Guild Bookstore, the “largest bookstore in Chicago” in this anecdote:

Forgetting
Chicago is full of factories. There are even factories right in the center of the city, around the world’s tallest building. Chicago is full of factories. Chicago is full of workers.

Arriving in the Haymarket district, I ask my friends to show me the place where the workers whom the whole world salutes every May 1st were hanged in 1886.

It must be around here,’ they tell me. But nobody knows where.

No statue has been erected in memory of the martyrs of Chicago in the city of Chicago. Not a statue, not a monolith, not a bronze plaque. Nothing.

May 1st is the only truly universal day of all humanity, the only day when all histories and all geographies, all languages and all religions and cultures of the world coincide. But in the United States, May 1st is a day like any other. On that day, people work normally and no one, or almost no one, remembers that the rights of the working class did not spring whole from the ear of a goat, or from the hand of God or the boss.

After my fruitless exploration of the Haymarket, my friends take me to the largest bookstore in the city. And there, poking around, just by accident, I discover an old poster that seems to be waiting for me, stuck among many movie and rock posters. The poster displays an African proverb: Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.

 

In 1995 Guild Books had been closed for two years, but the Guild Complex hosted Eduardo for his newest book, Walking Words. Diana and I drove him to the reading location, a settlement house in the Wicker Park area, and on the way crossed the Chicago River. Walking Words is a book of myths, some modern, some older, many of water spirits and animals, in a collaborative with Jose Francisco Borges, whose woodcuts illustrate the stories. Diana told Eduardo stories about the Chicago River, whose history included years of being set on fire from the materials polluting the waters, years of being unsafe to drink for the animals that populated the river, years of being attacked by the manufacturers who degraded the water supply and the people who lived on its banks. Eduardo listened, intent, with evident pain in his face. “But wait,” Diana said, “the river had its revenge. Last year the river refused to be contained by the man made barricades, burst through into the tunnel through which the subways run and up into the streets of the city, causing millions and millions of dollars of damage.”

“The earth has memory,” Eduardo said. “That is important. Memory is important. I want to know more about memory.”

 

We know now where the Haymarket was, where the rally was for which the Haymarket

galeano-we-say-yes-to-diana-and-lew

In his 1992 book of critical essays, We Say No, Eduardo wrote: “We say no to some people. And we say yes to Diana and Lew.

martyrs were arrested and imprisoned and executed. In 2006 Henry Holt published Eduardo’s Voices of Time, continuing the epigrammatic form he has worked with, this time “stories that I lived or heard.”   At the Guild Complex we convinced Susan Bergholz to take Eduardo’s strenuous tour through Chicago once more. He read for us at the Museum of Contemporary Art to a packed audience. For many, this was the culmination of what Guild Books had been about. For us, it was an opportunity of bringing memory, forgetting, and not knowing at all together, these themes that strike at the heart of Galeano’s work and of the revolutionary process.

May Day, 2006, just weeks earlier, I walked among almost a million Chicagoans along a route from Union Park to Randolph into the Loop and Grant Park. The steel, concrete and glass canyons resounded with the chants of marchers, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” reverberated from the walls of those buildings, the marchers swelling into the streets in a mass farther than anyone could see.

But before coming to the loop, just a few blocks out of Union Park, we came to Randolph and Des Plaines. I stepped to the sidewalk, stood in the shadow of the corner building and looked north as the throng walked by me. The contingent from one union, also looking north, paused briefly and saluted the sculpture across the way – a recreation of the platform from which the speakers addressed their audience that May, 1886. Most marchers seemed unaware of the historic place through which they were walking, although well aware of the historic day on which they were marching.

How could we bring this reality of American consciousness to the reading that Eduardo was going to do? We made sure that some of those union leaders representing the marchers and their consciousness of May Day introduce Eduardo. And so they did, and we had the chance to talk about the sculpture, the march, and that although many marchers did not know where Haymarket square was, the fact that their march reclaimed not only the memory of the martyrs but the reality of the struggle which continues.

* * * * * * * * *

My life after Guild Books led me to become an assistant manager in Barnes & Noble.On the day I received my pin for 10 years service and loyalty,  3 years away from my being able to retire with full social security, Barnes & Noble fired me for not pushing the employees to work harder.  For the first time in 30 years I didn’t manage a bookstore, didn’t have to worry about meeting payroll in my own store or maintaining a sane workplace in a store I didn’t own. I sighed with relief.  At some point after I had been forced into “retirement” I was talking with Nelson Peery, who had been instrumental in my coming to Chicago in the first place.  Don’t worry, he said, you’ll get a bookstore again, I’m sure of it.  I didn’t tell him that in the economic environment of  superstores that was the last thing on my mind.  I thought about my father’s own disappointment in 1962, and instead of bookstores I thought of what new chapter would open in my life, now that I would have the opportunity to follow my dreams of revolutionary activity. Fundamentally this story is about literature and revolution; It is about history and lions and how, by recovering memory, by making known what is unknown, the lions begin to write their own history.

 

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.

greta-lew-visit-with-lou-glenna-margot-and-michael

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

 

greta-and-diana-september-1996-in-waterloo

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.

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.

robin-and-greta-and-diana-and-lilacs-may-2005

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)

Ripening

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.