Saturday, May 15, 2004

It was the day following Mel's disastrous collapse ...

into what was to be his new immediate future in a nursing home. I was still employed at the university in what was now "our" research project, but had Bill's permission to opt out for however long it might take to handle this family emergency. The project was coming to an end, anyway. We were entering into the evaluation phase shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, I was leaving prematurely -- but at the time had no idea where this would all lead.

Some context:

The home that Bill and I had created was situated on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, the topmost ridge in the city. At about 1500 ft., it ran along the edges of Tilden Park, and overlooked the entire Bay Area, the cities below, both bridges, Treasure Island, and on a clear day the distant Farallons... In order to reach home we drove from the old fraternity house that housed Project Community -- on the northern edge of the campus on Hearst Street, south past the Memorial Stadium and through Strawberry Canyon to the scenic narrow road that leads to Lawrence Science Museum. There we'd routinely stop on clear evenings to watch the sun drop into the Pacific behind the Golden Gate bridge. On foggy days, we were often above the fog bank and could look down upon its churnings as it drifted through the Gate far below. The drive through the campus often seemed unlikely, temporary, so far beyond my expectations for what my life would be -- that there was little surprise when it all began to change as the Flatlands re-claimed me and drew me back into the next phase of life. Those ten years were mind-bending and rich and growth-producing in ways that I so appreciate, still. My indebtedness to Bill and of the expansion that took place in my psyche in those years is inestimable.

In the days immediately following the crisis of Mel's tragic life, I found myself driving into South Berkeley into what was now a crime-ridden and poverty-stricken community. It was time to try to assess next moves. It was clear that there was little carryover from those early days when I'd been the principal player with Rick in his playpen beside those orange crates we'd started with, while Mel worked elsewhere. That was gone. The experience was now buried beneath years of child-rearing and suburban living, political activities and the beginnings of university life. Besides all that, I was terrified of the environment in which I now found myself. African American life at this level was as alien to me as suburban life had been some years before. The stories learned from Rick rocked my entire being. What had become normal in the life of the store was beyond my wildest and most fearsome dreams. The billboards along the street almost universally featured liquor ads. There were 12 places where one could purchase alcohol within a six block stretch. There were street corner "offices" manned by young black males who guarded them fiercely. Across the street from our business stood an old house that was obviously being used for prostitution -- and our windows looked out on those activities constantly. There was a camper that parked across the street and that served as a floating gambling operation. On that first day I noticed a huge billboard -- situated on the lot beside that house. It ironically advertised cigarette papers!

Since Sacramento Street was under total reconstruction due to the removal of the Santa Fe Railroad tracks and the undergrounding of utilities, on that first day of my return I was faced with sawhorse barriers that prevented entry onto the street. All concrete had been removed so that there were open trenches bordering the street and dirt up to the entrance of all buildings. No one could enter the area except on foot. This state existed for 18 months, killing all commercial life on the street over that period. Small wonder that Mel had collapsed under the weight of it all. Given the state of his finances, the city's revitalization program must have been the last blow to any thought of recovery.

Inside the building -- on closer inspection -- I discovered small scales and tiny little plastic bags in the display cases (whose use my naive brain didn't yet understand), a backroom where black-light posters (suggestive) were on display, some questionable articles whose use I was only later to determine. It was clear in only a brief moment that Mel's business had dropped to the level of the life on the streets after many years of relative success. It was all very frightening, and I found myself almost immobilized in those first few visits, unable to comprehend the situation in which I now found myself. Listening for every sound that might be a gunshot, or, shouts that might indicate that fights were being staged just beyond our entrance. Every hair became a nerve ending!

In addition, I noticed for the first time a sign posted on the door that declared the intention of the holder of the mortgage on our building to foreclose for lack of payments. That 6000 sq. ft. two-story building, constructed in 1964, was the source of pride for Mel and my sons -- and it was gone. Having faced the loss of our home to the Internal Revenue Service months before, this was the final blow. My children's legacy -- that once consisted of several buildings along that street -- had vanished into the vacuum formed by Mel's downward slide into a devastating gambling addiction. He'd not paid on the mortgage for several years. It was over. But was it?

During that first week, while packing merchandise that I judged might be redeemable and that might reduce a portion of the indebtedness now having to be faced -- a strange thing was happening. There were customers who were climbing over the barriers to get in -- knocking on the doors to make purchases. They'd come in -- often help me to find something they were seeking, would express their genuine concern for Mr. Reid, and wish me the best. There were many such people, some neighbors whom I didn't know, but some were coming from great distances to make purchases of mostly gospel music records and tapes.

It was clear that life here was being experienced at several levels. What was scary and threatening to me was simply a different reality to those for whom this was normal. My priorities had shifted dramatically over the years. I was in great need of a reality check, and to understand this world, I was going to have to withdraw from the other. The implications for my marriage were obvious, but that would unfold as it must -- over time.

By the end of the first week I'd made a decision. This little business had taken on a life of its own. That life was only marginally related to Mel or to me. It had -- over many years -- become an institution in that community and in the Bay Area, and maybe deserved a second look. With Bill's help and counsel, I started to make calls to the distributors -- explaining that the business had collapsed and that -- though I was certainly aware of the indebtedness -- wasn't it also true that popular music had a shelf life and that most of the merchandise on our shelves was of questionable value now? Would it make any sense for me to return it to them for credit, or, in light of the tragic events of Mel's life (he was well-liked despite all), would it not make more sense for them to give me six months to try to revitalize the business? Surprise, surprise! There was a universal acceptance of my proposition and with a gift of $10,000 from Bill to satisfy the demands of the foreclosure, I was going to become a Sacramento Street merchant, and a black merchant at that.

This proved to be the start of the end of life among those brilliant intellectuals of the period and the beginnings of a challenge that would in later years lead to being named "Woman of the Year" before the legislature of the State of California (1995).


Photo: Taken with Assemblyman Tom Bates, 14th Assembly District on the day of the honors.

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