Sunday, September 12, 2004

Harry Who?

Cleaning out my files this morning I ran across this exchange and decided to share them here. This is the kind of entry that humanizes history in ways that nothing else can -- and should be shared.

For many years I've been participating in Seniornet, an online community that brought together seniors from all over the country. It was created by San Francisco's Mary Furlong, it started out as a master's thesis, I believe. In the early nineties it took on a life of its own that changed lives and deepened the meaning of friendships in unexpected ways.

In those early days, the only elders online were those who were savvy enough, and brave enough, to enter the cyberworld of the young. There were many retired professionals who'd been introduced to this brave new world through their work. There were also those who were dragged into cyberspace by their children as a way to keep us current with the accellerating rate of change lest we be lost along the way. It was also a given that we be able to afford the hardware required to enter the "Gates of Progress." I recall a post one day when a member of Seniornet announced proudly that she'd just "blown the estate on a brand new Power PC, and the kids would just have to make it on their own!"

There were some unexpected consequences that I'm sure addled almost anyone who chose to enter in to this new forum. Little did we dream of where it would take us, or that at some time in the future would rival political powers by creating this crazy and wonderful invisible though powerful new system that could challenge regimes and blunt the ability to wage wars. I truly believe that we are seeing the creation of the balancing international world power that may well rival even that of what we now refer to as "The First World."

But I digress.

Subject: Harry Who?
Date: Sat. Aug 9, 2003 1:59 PM
From: CBreaux
Msgld: <>

Yesterday I attended the American City Planners Association's annual conference in downtown Oakland, Californa. I was covering two workshops for our office -- one on "The Criminal Justice System" and the other, "Environmental Injustice." During the course of his presentation, the first presenter used an old device to involve his audience. He tossed out a purely rhetorical question, "who among you can name the most powerful union force in the State of California?" Since I was sitting close to the front of the room -- hand raised and waving -- he called on me. With all of the confidence of my impressive name tag (Field Rep for Assemblywoman Loni Hancock), and as Michael Jordan might wave others away to sink his famous air-bourne rim shot from 80 feet out -- I shouted out, "Har-ry Bridges!" Our leader looked stunned. Unknowing. So did everybody in the room. Talk about yer old lady response! I laughed at myself all the way home!

What he was fishing for was, of course, the prison guards union of the California criminal justice system. Nothing I could have said would have dated me more. Those folks didn't even know who Harry Bridges was! I'd have done better had I thought to mention Cesar Chavez! That would at least have come from a later period in history, right?

Despite my relatively youthful appearance and carefully chosen style of dress and ability to talk the talk (most of the time), my frame of reference rises right out of my personal history. Ain't a whole lot to do about that, I suppose, but laugh!


Betty of Berkeley
"Women in Progress!"

Some online reponses:

Subject: Remembering Harry Bridges: a vignette
Date: Sat, Aug 9, 2003, 3:12 PM
From: InSoMannyWords
Msgld: <>

Betty, if it's any comfort to you, I haven't forgotten Harry Bridges either, and he's vivid in my mind. I knew him slightly when he lived in the Haight-Ashbury, and I met him socially at my cousin's house, but then I met him in a professional capacity many years later (and many years ago). He made an appointment in the Kaiser-Permanente urology clinic in San Francisco. He was elderly at the time, and he kept apologizing for taking up so much time when there were others in great need of care. He was physically a tiny guy, not at all the man of muscle one would expect for the leader of the longshoremen.

Anyhow I reminded him that he was the last that should apologize for taking up time since in Kaiser-Permanente he was very much the VIP. Shortly after World War II there was a big question whether KPMG (Kaiser Permanente Medical Group) could survive as a peacetime deliverer of health care and make money as a prepay deliverer of health care. Harry brought the longshoremen in, and then it was an avalanche for other unions and organizations, but he was the first. I told him that he was a big hero to me and my partners. He thanked me, but then reminded me that his days as heroic figure were long over to the younger longshoremen who by then considered him an old fuddy-duddy, but what a guy! And like all great men, as pleasant (and as modest) as they come.

Subject: Re: Harry Who???
Date: Sat. Aug 9, 2003 4:05 PM
From: SaJanina
Msgld: <>

Betty before I got the name, I thought of him, and of his strength ....and then realized you had written his name! I knew him...he was a relative of my next door neighbor and when he would come to visit I would sit with them in the living room in awe. Those were such exciting evenings.

His daughter and I became friends ...she died about ten years ago, after him, of breast cancer that wasn't found until it was too late ...leaving an eight year old boy.

I didn't know him during the time of his great triumphs ... I only knew him in his old age ...and through my beloved neighbors. Without my neighbors I might not have known of his courage and spirit.

He was skinny and smoked like crazy. He was something else! I am so glad that you've reminded me of the kind of fighter he was ... He was an absolutely incredible man. PBS did a very fine documentary about him about five years ago..I would love to see it again was beautiful

SaJanina, happy for the memories.

Subject: Re: Harry Who???
Date: Sat, Aug 9, 2003 4:50
From: CBreaux
Msgld: <

Aha! Manny, Saj! I wasn't so wrong or out of date after all; just out of context. The name Harry Bridges should be held up as heroic and well-remembered (as, obviously, he is) on the short list of strong union organizers. I'm sure that Saul Alinsky and Cesar Chavez followed closely in his footsteps, but it was Bridges who created the mold. We all had to be pretty young at the time of his reign, but we remember. That's comforting.

The humor was not lost, however, because on a scale of relevance -- I wasn't even in the ballpark in that young crowd.

Wonder how those giants would be addressing the current conditions? Wish we could revive their attitudes, if not their work. I work fairly closely with Labor (AFL-CIO, CTA, and SIEU) here in my county, and there are times when I have the sense that - for the sake of "jobs, jobs, jobs" -- many would accept a contract to manufacture guillotines! And I'm a champion of the labor movement. The prison guards are a union, the union that achieved a $20,000/year raise at a time when the state budget deficit is at 38 billion, and when we're quite literally grabbing crutches from the lame and eliminating food for guide dogs.

Where's Harry when we need him? Wonder if we could make a list of outstanding union leaders currently functioning? Surely they'll surface during this recall of our governow. I know at least two whom I'd certainly put on such a list. The State AFL-CIO leadership has taken a strong no-recall position. I'm not all that sure about the membership, though. It's hard to keep a clear sense of who the players are and of what they bring to the table, isn't it?

The Avatar who lived and worked among us as Harry Bridges so long ago surely left his mark, and those of us who still remember have created for him -- immortality.


Note: I'm wondering how much important and humanizing history is imbedded in these exchanges that are accessible only through these intimate-though-abstract online conversations among peers of our generation? I've never met SaJanina, though we've been sharing the past this way for many years. She's an artist/anthropologist and lives a portion of each year among the Maroons in Surinam. She is at other times a resident of Upstate New York. Manny is a San Francisco retired urologist and creator of crossword puzzles for the New York Times. He's since emerged into my "real life" as a friend and occasional co-participant in an inner-circle of local folks who met online years ago and now meet for lunch from time to time.

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