Thursday, May 20, 2004

For fear of leaving the impression ...

that I felt in any way capable of what I was embarking on, be it known that doubt plagued every step. I remember standing in the middle of that store on that first morning, quaking in fear and starting with each new street noise. Had no idea where this would take me or whether I was in any way up to the task -- but I did know that long years before -- in 1945 -- I'd stood behind the counter in a makeshift work space in a converted garage with a cigar box for my receipts and orange crates to hold the stock and that we'd survived. That was only some 100 feet away in the duplex next door. This building had been constructed in 1964 and was luxurious in comparison to those days. What could I do now with a real display cases for inventory, a commercial cash register that gave receipts and a custom-built counter to stand behind? In those days I'd served our customers through a window cut in the wall of the garage. This was a huge step up from the early days (1945). All that was missing was my youth and sense of daring. The neighborhood at that time was safe and the clientele easy to please. The prognosis should be far better under these circumstances, despite the awfulness that lay just outside the front door in the form of the drug trade. Others managed to cope with it; could I? Could I be tough enough?

After all, the people in this community lived on welfare for the most part and coped with uncertainty to a degree that I could only guess at. When night came, I climbed into my late model Toyota and headed back through the campus and into the hills to look down on the romantic lights of the city while eating quiche and sipping white wine! These families stayed behind in this fear and longing with the sounds of gunshots ringing throughout many a night. There was no respite for them. I was only a daytime warrior with a pass if I needed one. How well I could keep my eyes on the prize and tenaciously hold on to my purpose would determine whether I could make this work.

Among the social and political groups that I belonged to, was ABC (can't recall what those letters stand for). It suffices to say that there were two very active political groups in Berkeley at that time. Both would be considered liberal with one a bit farther Left than the other. I knew of no conversative activists within the city limits. ABC was the more conservative and was the one led by Ms. Carol Sibley, dear friend of Bill's and mine, and co-sponsor of the busing plan that brought school integration to Berkeley. Carol was a community leader by anyone's standards. Her co-sponsor on the busing plan was Bill's best friend from their days in Washington, Leonard Duhl, of the School of Public Health at the University.

During that time I was working hard to bring whatever influence I could from the Hills to the Flatlands and to the South Berkeley community where I now spent my days. It was to Carol that I turned for help with my growing conflict with the tenant from my second floor offices. I was more and more certain that he might be involved in less than legal activities. My fear of him was growing with each day. A female member of his staff had come downstairs to speak with me in private only that week, and confirmed my suspicions. I also knew of his strong city hall connections.

Carol listened intently and then said, "...I understand, Betty, I'll invite my friend Shirley to lunch with the two of us to talk about this -- before the week is over." Her friend was a member of the Berkeley City Council, and had recently announced her intention of running for mayor in the upcoming election. This should be most helpful.

As promised, within a few days the three of us met over a fine lunch in Carol's luxurious Japanese-style custom-designed home just north of the campus -- (dining on Imari, of course) -- and I told my tale of woe to her friend. She was silent for a moment and then said, "... Frank Davis is a leader in that community, and can deliver the vote down there. I see no reason to do anything to block his efforts." I was shocked! I'd been very candid in my plea to her. I was literally living in fear and desperately needed her help. She simply said "no." This man was her key to the black vote, or so she believed.

It was in the hours that followed that political Betty Reid Soskin was born. I drove back to South Berkeley, angry and hurt. I drove up and down Sacramento Street noticing the many Shirley Dean signs in the windows of every little business along the way. Drove back to downtown Berkeley to the headquarters of her rival in the mayor's race, Gus Newport, and picked up as many signs as I could carry. Returned to South Berkeley and started at one end of my six block small business community -- walked into each business, introduced myself to the proprietor, and asked permission to place a Newport sign in his/her window. Each in turn granted permission. I had soon covered the neighborhood with those signs certain that I'd done the job well. I was a woman on a mission.

The next morning as I was driving to work, it was clear that things had changed. Every single sign had been removed and in its place was a large Shirley Dean poster. Frank Davis had moved in and taken over. He'd staked his territory and I was no part of it. This was his declaration of turf.

When questioned (and I did walk the streets again, asking what had happened) there were signs of intimidation everywhere. People were apologetic, but clearly wanted no part of a fight over a political issues in which few felt they had any claim.

I returned to the Newport headquarters for more signs. Came back to my building with a newly purchased heavy duty stapling gun and plastered signs everywhere that I could reach -- in the windows, on the stairwell, across the front and on the sides of the building. I was a veritable Newport signboard! Mine was the only location in all of that community where Gus's signs were posted. Since this was a black community and Gus was African American while Ms. Dean was white, the undercurrent of intrigue was almost palpable. It was no accident that not one single sign was removed from my building during this battle of wits. The guys on the street were clearly watching over me. My tenant had to walk through that phalanx of Newport signs to reach his upstairs office. It was war!

A few weeks later when the elections were held, my candidate won with a strong majority, and the precinct where we had stood our ground gave him a great victory. It was also true that where I lived high in the hills, Dean signs were everywhere. The Newport signs on our home fence were rare in our neighborhood, so the huge victory citywide came as a surprise.

This was the beginning of my association with city hall. It was only a short time in Gus's term of office before the city received a HUD grant to do 61 units of scattered site low-income homes and I was named by the mayor to serve on the committee to select those sites. From that -- from my attorney, Don Jelinek, who was elected to the city council in the same election cycle -- I accepted a position as legislative aide, working part time at city hall. It was in that role that I began to learn how things get done in cities, for the purposes of designing my strategies for South Berkeley. I worked with him for two terms and accomplished a great deal with his help. This meant splitting my days between our store and city hall. I'd inherited two employees and the off-and-on-when-he-was-sober help from Rick, so it was possible to do both. The store was able to support only three small salaries, but since I wasn't dependent upon the shop for my support, it worked out reasonably well. It required an outside job to support my business. We'd never have made it without that effort. I also needed my outside social connections in order to do the job of community organizing that must be done if my agenda was to be carried out at all. I had a business to support and an environment to dramatically change -- if this was going to work. This I could not expect Bill to participate in.

The store was all there was left of the estate that Mel and I had intended to create for our children. He'd given 35 years of his life to the effort, and was no longer able to contribute. He'd actually lost most of it over time and I found it was up to me to try to reconstruct as much our family assets as was possible in the years I had left. This situation was a carryover from my first marriage. I was fortunate to have married someone who understood this driving need and who was willing to allow me the time to do that. To ask more of him would have been beyond reason. This responsibility was mine alone.

The demands placed upon our marriage began to threaten its stability. Bill made several trips to India that I was unable to join him in. He went as far as Ladahk, on the Tibetan border at one point - and I didn't. We had less and less to share as time wore on. There were events and journeys that drew him away that I either couldn't or wouldn't participate in with him. I suffered from emotional and physical fatigue much of the time and was distracted by a world that he neither understood nor wanted to share. He'd married me -- not my family or my former life. He had never been a father, so was barely able to connect with my sons except in a very formal manner. There was rarely need to since they were now off on their own. I missed them. Dorian was living at St. Vincents, a fine boarding school in Santa Barbara. I missed her. My parents were aging and I was their caretaker, their lifeline, as I was Mel's. I loved them all. The marriage was beginning to unravel -- but it would be years yet until the end would come. We worked valiantly to keep it alive. He became more and more deeply invested in Tibetan Buddhist studies as I became more and more African-American identified and absorbed in the business of creating social change.

Transitions are painful, but they're also the places where growth occurs and where life becomes more precious... .

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