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Friday, June 04, 2004

Wuddnya just know it?

NOW I know what should have been said, now that the opportunity's passed and the words and thoughts have come unstuck ... .

There's always been this mysterious amnesia about the war years. It came up again today. It's triggered by particular questions, questions that should be easily answered.

"Did you feel at one with the burst of patriotism that must have accompanied the homefront effort; the crushing speed and excitement of production?"

"No, I really can't recall that."

Then it came in a rush...the why of it all ...

African Americans have got to be some of the strongest people on the planet to have survived those years. We were being asked to work, fight, and possibly die for freedoms that would not be ours for another decade! How crazy-making that had to be. That -- for the most part -- we remained passive and more than that -- that we worked and fought and died despite the awfulness of national rejection.

If you've been reading this blog since the beginning you'll know that -- until the great migration to the West Coast changed the landscape for all time, my life had been relatively ordinary. My heroes were not black heroes. I was certainly familiar with Langston Hughes and Mary McLeod Bethune and Ralph Bunche, but I was far more familiar with Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Our families, who'd settled in the west for more than fifty years before WWII were like any other immigrant families striving to live our version of the American Dream, the dream that would take us right up into the great middleclass if we played the game right. Small wonder that those years are clouded over for me, clouded by rampant confusion. It was quite suddenly necessary to redefine myself without reference to anything I'd lived before.

The part of me that moved out of that "American" side was stunned into silence (at least temporarily) while the Betty that was now lumped in with the thousands of folks (black and white) who'd dropped their hoes and picked up hardhats to save the world for democracy were strangers, indeed. They were still drinking from separate water fountains and riding in two ends of the same bus that was going in the same direction. The voting privilege had not yet been extended to many who were now being expected to get into uniform and protect the world from Facism! Confusion reigned!

African-Americans who'd moved up from the southern states to do the home front work were at the same time "moving to the front of the bus." Not so for us. We were discovering segregation of a kind we'd never known, and having our brains and emotions scrambled in the process. It should be no surprise that my memory has been dimmed over the years, in defense against the cruelty of the times.

Perhaps that's why I've never identified with the Rosie concept. She was an anomaly and symbolic of a time that produced some of the most painful growth of my life, and of the life of the nation.

I still find her little more than a paper doll. Rosie as a symbol just doesn't work for me.

Nonetheless, tomorrow at the dedication I'll catch the spirit and let go of the quiet anger that I've been carrying around all these years. Today I felt some of it drop away as I walked the memorial for those cameras. Watching myself being myself as if from some outside vantage point ... Not sure why that was, but I found myself looking back at that monument for a few minutes before starting the motor to drive back into the traffic of life ... and home again.

That 30 minute interview turned out be over two hours long.

It's now one o'clock and I just returned home.

There was a team of four, a cameraman, producer, a young woman whose role I never quite figured out, and a sound man. They'd borrowed the mayor's conference room for the shoot, and set up enough lights to raise my anxiety level to unknown heights! The interviewer, James, was easy to work with, however, and though it felt forced and a little clumsy, we managed to get through it without incident.

I was seated on a low-backed chair in front of a large poster of the traditional Norman Rockwell Rosie in bandana with muscles flexing. Since it was out of my line of vision, I wasn't intimidated by it. I'd really never identified with the image; a point made quite clear in the interview.

When it ended the producer asked if I would be willing to go with them to the memorial at Marina Bay park for some additional footage. We drove over in a few minutes and there I walked and paused and looked down and read plaques and scanned pictures until the crew was satisfied with what they had.

As I understand it, this is all a part of the MSNBC D-Day coverage that will be carried all this weekend. They will televise live from tomorrow's NPS Reception Center dedication after completing 3 more interviews with Rosies who will be attending. What was filmed today will be "looped" to run throughout the weekend but will have live pieces edited in as needed. That probably means that there will be more than one opportunity to regret a variety of things, "...why did I say that? That color green does terrible things to my complexion, why did I wear that top? My, how old I'm getting! Are those NEW wrinkles? And, why didn't I sit up straight? "Those rimless eyeglasses are not good. The black frame would have looked nicer. Yatatayatatayata!

Nice touch:

The sound man was African American. I'd assumed that they were all from the east coast. Wrong. He was obviously local. At the end of the interview, just as we were about to leave for the Rosie Memorial -- he (Vern) asked quietly and with a grin, "... aren't you Ms. Reid from Reid's Records?" Matters not who the world claims me to be, or how impressive the resume becomes -- the identity of note is as the proprietor of that little Berkeley store, and the years spent there. Having that reality check made the time spent later on camera at the park a piece of cake. Had he spoken up sooner, that earlier interview would have been a good deal more relaxed, I'm sure. It's been many years since I walked out from behind that counter for the last time and turned the business over to David. That it's still a time remembered by this man was comforting to me. And, he looked half my age, at that, so that life may by now have become the subject of myth in the hood? Makes me wonder how many other African Americans have created non-traditional institutions without realizing it? It might be an interesting project to begin to catalog some of that.

As I've often joked, "...didn't know that I'd live long enough to BE black history." But apparently I have.

Watch for me this weekend on your local MSNBC cable channel.

Now I need to alert my kids and grandkids to grandma's latest escapade so that they can set up their VCRs for taping. Would hate for them to have it flash by without warning...

It's 10:13 and I'm off to the interview in a few minutes ...

Think I've dressed properly for the occasion, but as is true of most women, I've been up since six trying on likely outfits hoping that what I've chosen won't be too young. That's a problem these days. I've remained pretty much the same size over many years and -- having lived past the age of acquisition -- have bought few clothes in recent years. Still wearing "petites," but am trying to be more careful about not wearing styles that are too young. Have to admit that "What Not To Wear" is having its effect on me. But where on earth do I find clothes designed for little old lady's whose weight stabilized 20 years ago? Don't think Armani or Donna Karan have given us much thought of late.

Tennyrate, I've settled on a conservative moss green sweater with silk vari-colored trousers and open sandals. Topped that with a beautiful ancient raw amber necklace that Bill brought back from Ladahk (on the border of Tibet) many years ago. It's stunning and will have its debut on national television sometime this weekend when the tape is shown on the news channel. It belongs in a museum, and someday that's where it will be.

Interesting how my mind is bringing up such trivia ... trying hard to not think about what I will say. There's no way to prepare for the interview -- except to stay relatively serene and let whatever truth is available to me rise to the surface. Tape is so much easier than being on live. If it's too awful, I can withhold release, hopefully. But that may not be true -- and probably isn't. Guess I'm looking for an exit strategy (to borrow a phrase from today's headlines.

That gives me something to dwell on besides myself and my appearance this morning ...

Watch for me sometime this weekend ...

Don't miss my lovely necklace!

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Thoughts of the redevelopment project ...

dominate my memory bank right now. Can't seem to press them back into wherever they've been stored for all these years ...

I'm thinking of the excitement on the day when -- after seven years of organizing and debating before three successive city administrations -- the razing of the site began. There was the unmistakable sound of huge trucks on the move. We rushed to the front of the store to stare out of the windows at the sight of that hummongous claw machine chewing its way through that infamous house directly across the street. A crowd was beginning gather...

I thought of how many times I'd had people say to me, "...it will never happen. You'll never get it done. THEY'LL never allow it!" All the time I'd been plodding along identifying the steps and making the moves and drawing others along despite the protests. And here it was, HAPPENING before our eyes on this day.

Within only a few days the entire site had been neatly cleared and ground smoothed evenly. The homes behind, on Stanton Street, were now fully visible from the main street. This would take some getting used to. Q Martin's home had been chewed up in less time than it would take to tell it. I felt a deep sadness despite knowing that his family had been adequately compensated for the loss and would be eligible to relocate when the new homes were completed. We were dealing with a totally new landscape. It would take some getting used to.

In the days that followed something began to evolve that was completely unanticipated.

It was on a Saturday morning. I looked out and saw three kites flying high against the clouds. There was a family; mom and dad and several children having the time of their lives in this marvelous new play space with no obstructions in the way of pure delight! We'd never seen such innocent fun in this infamous former stretch of miserable crack houses (shooting galleries), and dens of inequity ever. It was like a lovely exorcism that announced silently and gracefully an end to evil. I cried as I watched. Traffic slowed and people stopped to smile at one another. With the utilities undergrounded not long before, there were no power poles or other obstructions to capture those beautiful kites!

A few days later there was the distinct aroma of smokey barbecue sauce and the smell of charcoal ablaze. When a customer motioned me to come outside for a look, we both laughed at the wonder of it all! There was a flatbed truck parked on the newly cleared site, with people gathering around. In a little while the blaring of a sound system ringing out the sounds of an electric guitar playing gutsy blues through loudspeakers, and the party was on! People were engaged in good fellowship for the entire afternoon, with great music and impromptu blues contests drawing everyone in from the streets. Spectators were few, everybody was a party guest! Neighbors went home to return with chairs and umbrellas and leftover potato salad from the fridge and red jello and pitchers of punch...it was pure umpromptu joy of a kind that embraced everyone within sight and sound of it.

I wasn't sure that I'd fully understood the language of the kites, except in the context of the exorcism theory, but the blues party was clearly a celebration of the triumph over misery and in anticipation of more good times ahead, though no one gave words to any of that. It was a 'feelin' thing. I locked the door and joined the party!

About four days out there was a new sound that drew me out to curbside. This time we watched in dismay as a huge truck from the City's Public Works Department noisily unloaded huge rolls of wire fencing material. My heart felt heavy for a loss I couldn't quite identify. In short order the new playground was fenced off from public use. There were no keys to the service gates mid-block -- except for city staff.

How do I respond to this? One call downtown was all it took to learn that this was something that the city must do in order to be protected from lawsuits. But of course I should have known that. It could not be left unguarded and free to community use for "insurance reasons." The reasonable logical part of me surely understood this to be an important consideration, but there was a deep sadness that fell on the neighborhood as the glow was diminished in the name of progress and safety and common sense.

Where oh where had these folks been when there was no safety to be had in my 500 feet, and when one quarter of the city's homocides had occurred in that block? Where were they when we'd witnessed four young men -- at different times -- shot dead within sight and sound of our store? Where were those "insurance considerations" when that stray bullet whizzed through our front window on a Saturday afternoon -- narrowly missing David's head as it embedded in the shelves above us? And where were they on all those times when young black sons and fathers were being hog-tied and carted off to serve time for questionable reasons, and while I watched in troubled silence?

Where was the logic?

What had been lost?

Where was the sense of it, and at what point do we balance risk against an exuberance that has been too long delayed?

Those answers are illusive. I've still not found them, though I've surely adjusted to the conundrum. Maybe I've also lowered my expectations over the years. I'm not as apt to recognize irony when I see it because I've now spent too much time among the "reasonable."



Meanwhile, MSNBC just called to announce that I'm to appear at the Old Ford Building for that interview tomorrow morning at eleven. Guess they've decided to go with this dissonant Rosie. I'm presuming that it will be a few sentences carved from a brief interview and that there will be other women of the period doing the traditional pieces about "The Good War."

I guess that I've yet to witness a "good" war.

I have, however, witnessed great moments in everyday life that may be cause enough to defend.

Let me know if you catch the coverage, will you?

Through conversations in my store ...

with customers who were coming now from far and wide (Monterey to Sacramento), it was becoming clear that we were all in this together and that my day-to-day progress was being shared. There was a lot of "we" in those conversations, and it felt good and right.

There were no longer any signs of graffiti, break-ins were now rare, and I was breathing more easily. Bill was beginning to relax and from time to time I'd hear him bragging to our friends about my exploits. Couldn't have managed without his strong support.

Mel had been settled in a senior housing unit nearby, and -- except for the need to pick up his groceries and take him for the occasional doctor's visits, we'd both adapted fairly well to his new life. My role as best friend eventually over-rode Betty as ex-wife. Both Bill and I felt comfortable with that. I generally tried to plan such errands when Bill was with his patients in our downstairs library. He still was in private practice though by that time was retired from the university.

My parents were requiring weekly visits. Dad was now totally blind, but still functioning surprising well. I remember watching him do little home repairs with as much confidence as he had when sighted. He knew that the distance between his fingertip and first crease (joint) was exactly one inch. He could therefore measure accurately anything that needed it, and complete the task with little difficulty. I watched him with such pride! I wondered whether he'd figured that out in anticipation of his blindness, but regrettably never thought to ask. There were some important lessons here in adapting to change with grace. I cannot recall him complaining at any point during those years. His pride and dignity held fast until death came at 94.

Dorian was at school in Santa Barbara and the boys were out living their lives in their own ways. Rick's alcoholism continued unabated and Bob's wanderlust was of concern at times. Life for us was extremely complex but manageable still with the constant need for re-appraisal for signs of stress.

Rick and two other helpers were holding the fort back in South Berkeley while I moved ever deeper into city politics and learning the ropes in a brand new field. This one would be essential to my ability to handle life as a small merchant in the inner city. This is where I would learn how political change is created and maintained. Reinventing myself as- and when-needed was becoming routine.

Bill was now deep into his Tibetan studies and spending more and more time at Padma Ling with his colleagues and on retreats at Odiyon, the Nyingma monastery, high above the Russian River two hours north. The home social gatherings were rare now. His two sisters had moved to the coast from the Midwest and needed to share his time and attention. Times were changing and our life together was reflecting that. We were clearly on different paths that were gradually moving apart, but with little trauma, and much mutual respect.

I was spending more time at city hall, now half-time at the store and half time staffing city councilman, Don Jelinek. This meant an entirely new field of learning and in a field that was as subjective as it was empowering. As a legislative aide I regularly attended weekly meetings of the city council, but in addition -- as the subject demanded -- many of the city's commissions and departments. I'd begun to do some speech-writing as well, but not for verbatim delivery as much as a way for Don and I to exchange ideas. He could often better frame his own arguments by knowing mine. That meant that we didn't need to agree, in fact, it was better when we didn't. As a practicing attorney he was used to being adversarial and I learned that my work was of more value when I could express my positions accurately and honestly. This better prepared him for the work that we did together; a very valuable way to move in the world of politics.

Since most city council seats are part time, it is the responsibility of the aides to bone up on the issues and help to prepare the packet for those weekly meetings. It means that one had to be a generalist with specialities in the areas that most interested your councilmember. It was fascinating work, and prepared me well for this past decade of serving the same function, primarily, for two members of the state assembly. The lessons of the past were easily refreshed and activated in this entirely new context.

One of the most valuable aspects of working with Don was the fact that he was Jewish, a New Yorker, had left his Wall Street office in the Sixties to join the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. He'd been one of the attorneys who formed Dr. King's defense team. He'd planned to spend six weeks in the deep south and stayed for three years, leaving only after Dr. King's assassination. He didn't return to the east coast, but came west instead.

Don was also the defense attorney for the Attica prisoners who were acquitted in the prison riots (in the eighties?). After coming west, he lived on Alcatraz Island for six months with the Native American tribes who claimed the site as their rightful heritage under long-neglected treaties. They were eventually ousted by the government. This idealist served two terms with the Berkeley city council and ran for mayor twice, but lost both times. It was a brutal struggle and most disillusioning. I cut my political teeth on those campaigns. And -- he lost to Shirley Dean, the same Ms. Dean who was defeated by Gus Newport in those early years of my return to South Berkeley. Ms. Dean and I go a long way back, as you can see. In the most recent election cycle in Berkeley, it was the husband of Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (my employer at the time), Tom Bates, who defeated Ms. Dean for the mayor's seat. The more things change ... .

Ms. Dean and I were to lock horns yet another time (during the 90s) over a small city-owned black theater, but that story is for another day. Suffices to say that she had both the power to frustrate my efforts and the willingness to use it. This time the mayor prevailed.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Fourth of July in October ...

There were surely some frightening days to cope with. Like the day during the early years, before life had settled down into a day-to-day routine of ordinariness that still demanded a high degree of caution. I'd developed a highly sensitive hearing level. My ears amplified the street noises but often failed to filter out the cries of distressed children from the sounds of domestic violence somewhere out of sight but not out of hearing. This was before I'd become reasonably comfortable with the street corner cabals, and before I'd learned to read the danger signs with any accuracy -- the quickness of the lookouts -- the "runners" -- when something was "comin' down."

My problem tenant was still upstairs on the second floor and this was worrisome to me. Some of his staff had begun to report disturbing stories. I knew that he had downtown influence and that it would be difficult to deal with him without some element of threat.

On that morning in October I arrived to work to a scene that stopped my breathing for just an instant. On the Prince Street side of my building there was shattered glass everywhere! All of the display windows on the north side of the building had been blown out! At first sight I had the impression of there having been a fire.

My troubling tenant was standing at curbside -- his well-dressed long and lean body leaning against his car with a sinister grin on his face. He had been waiting for me, waiting to see my reaction to the mayhem. The corner was strangely empty of street dealers. There was an eerie silence with neighbors gathered in small groups -- staring.

As the story unraveled later, I learned that on the day before he'd hosted a meeting in his office at which the chief of police and several uniformed officers were present. That apparently signaled to the street that my second floor was being used for surveilance purposes. As a warning, barrel bombs had been taped to my windows during the night and detonated as a warning. My tenant appeared to have written the script, though proof was illusive.

Shortly thereafter I served notice of eviction for cause, but not before I'd experienced several weeks that seemed like a lifetime of living in fear. Bill was beginning to bring pressure to bear on me to give it up. Shut it down. He was increasingly concerned about my safety. He was probably justified, though in all honesty -- I always believed that eventually I would make it.

The fact that I immediately called in the glaziers to have the windows boarded up and went about the business of cleaning up the debris in plain view of everyone; that I didn't hide away in fear and trembling; may have saved the situation. Bravado thy name is Betty! When the plywood was temporarily in place I took to my "talking windows" and wrote a message in big bold black letters;


"How sad!
There is no insurance to cover this damage
...no money to pay for glass replacement.
However, while waiting to recover from this temporary setback
Reid's will do business as usual.
It would be helpful if you would not use this corner
for loitering so that our customers
will not be afraid to enter the store.
Then recovery can come more quickly.
Since I would prefer not to know your business,
conversations in my stairwell or front entry may
be unwise."

Thanks,

Betty Reid Soskin

It was clear that I was declaring turf and wouldn't be going anywhere. Come hell or high water, I planned to stand my ground and the street knew it. It was also clear that I really didn't want to know what they were doing and that I probably was not cooperating with the police, after all. They gave me the benefit of the doubt and I had no more problems. They honored my plea and left enough space around me and my building so that we became an island of sanity over time.

My customers continued to arrive in a steady stream, and the business grew with each day, though the nature of it was changing dramatically. Black gospel music was becoming more and more the centerpiece and Reid's was the location where the best could be found. And -- I was truly becoming far more comfortable as a business woman than I ever was at whatever it was that I'd become in the university community. This felt more like home for reasons I can't quite describe. Something deep inside me resonated to black life in ways that nothing else had. It still does.

Taking a stand on LL COOL J's album posed no threat to me. By the time that happened I was comfortable in my shoes. The Rappers either discounted me as being of no consequence, or, they respected my right to act on my own principles. I suspect it was the latter. If I wasn't comfortable with this genre, I (and possibly they) figured it had to be more generational than racial. I found little fascination with European music, either. Always figured that I just wasn't wired for Haydn and that Bach would sound a whole lot better with a good rhythm section with Mingus on bass, or a little Christian McBride, maybe (smile). Black gospel stood alone. Despite no history in the Black Church, Vanessa Bell Armstrong could bring a visceral reaction -- the late Thomas Whitfield might have been a fit musical companion to the great Duke Ellington. I recall writing an ad for a local paper in which I claimed ...

"Contemporary Black Gospel is Jazz Come Home!"

And it was and is.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

RAP ALBUM TOO BAD TO BE COOL, SHOP OWNER SAYS

By Gerald Davis
The Oakland Tribune


LL Cool J's new, fast-selling rap album is simple titled, "Bad."

Bad as in cool, Bad as in hot. Bad enough to mock traditional sensibilities with the harsh realities of ghetto life. Bad as the cutting edge.

He's so bad, he raps on the X-rated LP about blowing people away with his .357 magnum; about a smelly prostitute who accepts food stamps; about what he likes his women to do.

Betty Reid Soskin, owner of Reid's Records on Sacramento Street in Berkeley, thinks the album is too bad to sell to children, so a sign in the window of her gospel-pop music store reads: "LL Cool J is not on sale here!"

Her protest is a relatively rare one in the black-oriented music industry, which has not been as affected by overt lyrical references to sex, violence, and suicide as have the white-dominated heavy metal markets.

In 1985, a group of congressional wives and the national PTA, Parent Teachers Association, pressured 22 recording companies, producing 80 percent of the records in the U.S., to include parental-guidance warnings about lyrics on album jackets.

Reid's solitary crusade began after she received three cartons of the LL Cool J album and listened to the lyrics. She said she had been signing up anxious and eager young customers -- all of them younger than age 14 -- on a waiting list before the recording hit the stores.

After hearing the words, she packed up her 30 albums and took them back to the distributor.

"Everyone looked at me like I was a lunatic," she laughed.

"Mine was just a single act. It was something I needed to do for my own conscience. The trouble is, most adults don't have the patience to listen to these records."

She says some parents have thanked her, and that one girl reported that her mother broke her record after hearing it.

Some young customers have returned to let her know that they'd bought the record elsewhere, although the imprinted parental warnings forbid sales to minors.

"...Calling all cars.
calling all cars.
Be on the lookout for a light-skinned brother
he's wearing a sweat suit, gold chain and sneakers...
he's armed.

That's the introduction to the album's lead song, "I'm Bad."

The song ends with master rapper LL Cool J himself cutting in on the mock police band with, "...Yo. This is LL Cool J, and you'll never catch me. I'm too bad!"

From there he raps out a sort of verbal collage of life as he sees it in New York City, a picture that is common to many youngsters living in the economically depressed areas of American cities.

His is a macho, competitive and potentially explosive world where everyone is out for the big bucks in a hurry. The cool women are loose, and the cool "dudes" pack guns.

He presents himself as a pseudo-outlaw super-disc jockey/dance/emcee/rapper. He issues tough-sounding challenges to anyone who would dispute his claim.


"I'm the hardest hard rocker
in the hard rock town
'cause I got a .357
and I break it on down ...
Three-fifty-seven at point-blank range
ain't nothin' strange
you're having a heart attack'
it's at your back!"


At Wauzi Records in Oakland's Eastmont Mall, manager Darrell McFadden said the album has been "the hottest thing going" since its release three weeks ago.

It's what the brothers can relate to," he said. If some people find the lyrics objectionable, McFadden says simply, "It's reality." "I wouldn't allow my kids (ages 8 and 3) to listen to it, there's a lot of bad words in it. But to each his own, you know."

McFadden and other local store managers say that they can barely keep the record on their shelves because sales are so brisk.

After its first sales week, "Bad" was ranked Number 51 on Billboard Magazine's chart of Top 100 albums. After its second week, it was ranked Number 13. The record trade publication, "The R&B Report," calls LL Cool J "one of the front-runners of the rap movement (drawing) listeners as a vanguard."

The rap music genre emerged in the post-disco era of the early 1980s with often-witty writing that challenged uninitiated ears to something new.

The early hit by Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message," was an insightful tale about a young man about to snap from the pressures of his dead-end environment.

Some groups continue with social commentary. An album by Public Enemy calls for the return of the Black Panthers. Others have adopted more routine themes, usually bragging about how well they can rap, dance, or seduce women. "A lot of adults don't like rap," said Nelson George editor of black music at Billboard. "It's viewed in the same ways that people see heavy metal. "They (rap and heavy metal) appeal to the young with aggressive music. It's the nature of the way it sounds, and the attitudes, that adults don't like. "Cool J is one of the guys who emphasizes the machismo aspect. He's a clever lyricist, he really writes well. He personifies some of what people don't like about it and some of the best."

No other local record storers have returned the "Bad' album, said Elliott Blaine, founder of the record distributorship that first sold Reid Soskin the "Bad" album. "Unfortunately, a lot of records are being made today for adult ears," he said. "I've been in the record business for 41 years. I remember when you couldn't say "God" on a record. The whole world has changed, morally. "Betty's a wonderful person. I agree with her on a whole lot of things, but you've got to accept life the way it is."

"I make no pretentions about changing the world," Reid Soskin says. "Actually I'm happy to settle for a few blocks. I can only affect things immediately around me. "I'm simply not participating in something I feel so negatively about. Perhaps if enough Bettys do the same, we just might create the positive change that we'd all like to see."

(end of article)

The Birth of Reid's "Talking Windows"

In the middle eighties, I made my first discovery about the power of streetside communication. That's a term I coined to describe a technique that came into being quite by accident. It was another of those times when I attracted major press without intending to do so at all, like today with the Rosie exposure.

It was during the days when Sony introduced the walkman, and my youngest customers were proudly wearing them on their belts. Everyone sported headphones and vacant stares as they passed my shop on their way to and from school. Sony ushered in a problem that few beside record store owners were aware of. During the LP album era, youngsters would bring home their new purchases, put the disc on the record player and everyone in the house would hear and enjoy (or not) their newest album. With the walkman, kids would come into the store, select a cassette tape, walk out with the music blaring in their ears with parents being totally unaware of what was being listened to. I, alone, would know that much of it was ugly and often obscene material. In an odd way I was placed in the position of putting into the ears of children (secretly) what I would not have wanted my own to be exposed to in their formative years.

The walkman came into being about the time that rap music was becoming popular and this added an extra dimension. I started listening to my products and being horrified at much of what I heard. Made a decision that started my "talking windows" strategy.

When LL COOL J, a New York rap artist came out with a release called "Bad," I decided to act. I only intended to communicate with the children in the immediate neighborhood. I would explain to them why I would not be selling the new release that they'd been signing up for days to buy. Took a large poster, turned it around and wrote on the back -- posted it prominently in the window with an album cover of the artist;


LL COOL J is not on sale here.
Sorry, kids, but we have to draw the line somewhere.
This album contains not only explicit sexual lyrics, but advocates
violence as well.
We certainly need your business and support
but not at the cost of your values and moral development.
You are the future
You are the hope for positive change!

Betty Reid Soskin

(You'll notice that I didn't dumb down the words or the message.)

As the kids filed in to buy this latest monstrosity, I waved them along with, "you'll have to get this one from Leopolds up on Telegraph Avenue, kids. I'm sorry."

At some point on that first day a reporter passing by saw my homemade sign and stopped in to inquire. He took a picture of it (and with me standing beside it) and walked away grinning and shaking his head. The next day there on page three of the Oakland Tribune was a large photo and a major article about the evils of rap music. This is surely not what I had in mind. Nor was the unexpected response that followed. There were calls from local radio stations from talk show hosts. There were requests for interviews. There was one talk show host who made a visit to the store that very day for a live interview -- and happened to catch an interaction between me and a precocious 8 year-old wanting the tape and being refused.

The radio host:

"Do you agree that you're in violation of the First Amendment?"

Betty:

"No I do not. The artist has a right to create and record the material. The record company has exercised the right to produce the record for sale. I am simply opting out on my right to sell it. I'm not suggesting that people don't buy it -- am actually referring them on to where it is available. I'm simply not participating in the process -- that is MY right. Actually, everytime I visit my wholesaler and make the selection of just what I want on my shelves, I'm exercising that option. This is no different."


Over the next week there were letters from far and wide. They came from caring mothers giving thanks. There were several from San Quentin from prisoners who congratulated me on "helping to save kids." There were some that contained checks written in the amount of the cassette with notes saying, "...this is for the sales that you will miss for taking your stand. Keep it up!"


In the years that followed there were many occasions when my windows "talked" to the community. At election time I'd study the ballot measures for a couple of weeks prior, and on big rolls of newsprint would cover my display windows with my choices; a replica of the ballot. I would start -- not by telling folks how they should vote, but with how I planned to use the franchise. Big difference.

The California ballot was becoming more and more convoluted year by year, with initiatives written to be as confusing as possible (requiring a no vote when you wished a yes). The process was hard enough for me to wade through. I guessed that many simply gave up and sat out election day for fear of making wrong choices. This might increase the number going to the polls (I hoped). Along with my window ballot (always with my signature at the bottom), I placed on my counter a printed list of my rationale for each of my choices. Was always careful to leave at least one measure without an answer, ("...you're on your own on this one. I can't quite figure it out") just so I wouldn't be seen as a know-it-all. Would write the really critical ones in red ink to call attention to the weird ones that were written with the intent to confuse.

Again, I thought that I was talking directly to my neighbors and customers until local candidates began to show up for endorsements from time to time. It was common for people to begin to come in a couple of weeks before election time to ask if I'd gotten my ballot ready for posting yet, "how we gonna vote Ms. Reid?". During the last week before, it was not unusual to see people pull up in their cars and park in front of the store to sit marking their sample ballots. Even the drug dealers would sit on the curb doing the same. On the last couple of days people would come in to talk about the candidates and the measures and to argue good-naturedly with my choices. It was all that I'd hoped for.

I'd hoped that my talking windows idea would catch on with other small merchants in the neighborhood, in hope that folks would then have a choice of leadership. It never happened. I suspected that no one wanted to be seen as being on the wrong side of the results on the day after the election. I never cared. For me, the goal was to increase the numbers going to the polls. I believe that we did that.

Talking windows and a dynamic newsletter worked miracles in my determination to magnify my voice toward social change in my 500 foot realm of influence.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Maybe the reluctance I'm feeling to being singled out for national attention has to do with the role I'm being asked to play. I'm less important as a fraudulent Rosie than I am simply as a twist on the story and therefore newsworthy? The insatiable appetite for news bites cannot be satisfied without new angles being created hour after hour, day after day. Do I want to be one of them? A dissonant Rosie may fit in with the rest of the opposers, a kind of balance to the Norman Rockwell symbol of feminine derring-do. Maybe I'll just come off as an angry old woman trashing "The Good War."

During the 15 minute phone interview with the West County Times guy yesterday, I reminded him that the National Park Service is charged with telling the nation's history through structures. That's true. For the past couple of years, since the new park was created on the Richmond shoreline, a major search has been conducted by historians from the university and by hired consultants, locating the relevant structures still standing. There will be restoration of as many as are needed to tell the story. Impressive signage upon which the stories will be told will mark those portions of the Bay Trail that are incorporated into the park site. Have been working with the advisory group that is designing those pieces. They're impressive.

Since the NPS cannot own property, said properties will need to be funded by the city, foundations, corporations, or private individuals. There is Shipyard #3 (#2 having been razed long ago to make space for the Marina Bay housing development), the old Kaiser Medical Center, the original childcare center, a huge storage facility, and of course, the old Ford Plant that converted from assembling cars to tanks shipped to the Pacific theater. There were also the Whirly Cranes, and the docks and piers that still show signs of the period.

Among the structures earmarked for the park is the only war housing facility still standing. It is a modest cooperative that is still under the ownership of heirs of the original worker families and a few lucky folks who've been able to buy into it. As might be expected, it was built as an all-white settlement. That housing has been landmarked as historic. All housing where non-whites lived was torn down within weeks of war's end by the government. The Jim Crow union hall where I worked was on Barrett Avenue, and met the same fate as the war housing for black folk. If the homefront story is to be told through structures, one would never know that we were ever here or that we participated in that unprecedented effort that turned out a victory ship every five days.

It feels ironic to think that my first experience with the NPS was at a presentation given at the local library early in the process. There was a slideshow with discussion intended to involve the community in the process. I was there on a work asignment. At the time, I covered all of West County as field rep for Assemblywoman Aroner. (How roles had changed over the years.) There were no more than 3-4 other non-whites in the room, and no one was speaking up. I felt keenly uncomfortable without much sense of just why that was. Had pretty much dismissed all of my own WW2 experience, and didn't feel particularly like a Richmond resident, having moved here from Berkeley to work for Dion. I participated that evening as an outsider for the most part. At the time I had no idea where our union hall had been located, but it was the only war-related structure I could recall having seen. I'd not been within sight of the shipyards at any point, so the slideshow was new material for me.

When the formal presentation ended and the punch and cookie period not quite started, I remember saying out loud to no one in particular, "...I have such a love-hate relationship with Rosie!" Judy Hart, the newly-appointed chief of the new park project looked a little taken aback, but bravely asked what I meant. I then told the group of my role in the war and of how far from all of that I really felt -- that I could hardly recall the War. I'd obviously forgotten it all as soon as possible, and now it was coming back -- bringing all of the affect with it.

The feelings of being in Richmond had been always been marked by a sense of hostility and foreboding -- evil bubbling just beneath the surface. Going home to Berkeley was a welcome experience at the end of the working day. (I was remembering all that now.) For reasons I don't understand, that feeling persists to this day. People speak of it as "poor image," and there is a running theme that pervades all discussions about redevelopment and rehabilitation of this city. This aura gets blamed on crime stats and graffiti and poor lighting, but it's in this town's DNA carried over from an earlier time. It's what I'm so anxious to try to change with the help of others -- and through using the Arts & Culture as antidote. It can happen. Beauty can be just as contagious as blight. I know that. I've lived the truth of it.

I had the distinct feeling that this new Rosie The Riveter Memorial National Park was going to dredge up some troubling feelings, and that there needed to be some vehicle for sorting some of that out -- especially for the non-white people who had lived through the period. Was aware that a series of these meetings was being scheduled. But I wasn't sure that the NPS fully appreciated the full impact of the fact that -- in the postwar period -- there has been a resurgence of the KKK, and that cross-burnings had occurred a number of times before being brought under control. There is an historic photograph of the Klan marching in full regalia down Macdonald Avenue, the main street of Richmond. A street now abandoned as the town chose (unwisely I think) to grow from its outer edges, leaving the central core deserted for the most part.

Further irony is the fact that those historic structures are still around because Henry J. Kaiser, Corp., simply walked away when peace was declared, leaving the people it had brought here (over 109,000 of them) to abandonment. Those structures have stood unclaimed -- as were the human beings -- for all these years, leaving rust and blight everywhere. It took many years before the city began to reclaim itself and set down its roots. In many ways it is still little more than low- and middle-income housing, industrial sites all loosely threaded together by strip malls. After 50 years, it has not recovered completely, but is showing signs of progress with a boom in construction rising on the ashes of old brownfields left over from the war years.

The national park will give formal presence to the era and will mark the place where it all happened. That will be a good thing. More importantly, its affordability has created a city where many immigrants and refugees have continued to settle, making it one of the most racially diverse communities in the country. It's richness is in its people, surely not in its physical structures. The DotCom boom and bust left many handsome ghosts of luxurious office campuses (including Steve Jobs' now empty former Pixar Studios) dotting the landscape and looking like movie sets waiting for re-casting in order to come to life again.

There's a strange sense of the "almost" overlaying everything here. The national park will herald a new beginning, I believe, but only if we rebuild the human element of this area carefully and with sensitivity to what has gone before. We can only do that if we truly KNOW "what has gone before." Could that be the importance of my role in all of this? Enough reason to say yes to MSNBC?

There was a legacy of greatness in that the sense of accomplishment -- at having risen to the challenge of winning the war through round-the-clock extra-human efforts. Here were the beginnings of HMO's and universal 24-hour childcare. But the tragedy of the lives of black people who were left to manage in a strange place with little or no assistance has never been told. Their shipbuilding experience was not transferrable by design, so it was back to those "jobs nobody else wanted" (as we're told now about immigrant laborers from south of the border).

When the temporary war housing was torn down, these stalwarts dragged scrap wood from the deconstruction sites -- , piping, nails and screws into North Richmond and began to build lean-tos in order to go on living. Returning to the south was not an option. There was little work to be had, but they survived. Much of the area was marshland and given to flooding. Much of the land was agricultural previously owned by the interned Japanese and subject to being taken away at some point in the future.

There's a dramatic human story to be told. But, if it's to be told through structures, there may be only silence.

We can only learn from our history if we know it, right? That may be enough of a reason to do that interview. There are so few now left alive to tell the stories... .




Sunday, May 30, 2004

Still mulling over that last post ...

Wondering why I've become increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of media attention I'm receiving these days. The oral histories I feel justified in doing since the life of any human being has value at least to their progeny. Knowing how much my father's videotapes mean to me provides some perspective on my own. Those several hours of Dad before the university audience provides immortality for him in a limited way. My own will do the same for my children. But those are done and in my possession. What is happening now seems quite different.

Maybe I'm feeling exploited for the sake of the Henry J. Kaiser image. And maybe that's not a bad thing. I'm not sure. I do know that at the recent opening of the Kaiser Exhibition at the Oakland Museum it felt strange to see my photo and sound bite (taken from the oral history) in a portion dedicated to the racial diversity he'd brought to the war effort. That felt disingenuous to me. There were photos of other blacks in that section of the exhibit. Segregated again? I wasn't sure. It did cause me to look around to see if there were any African-Americans displayed in any other section and (in all fairness) I did see one, but I can't remember the context. Maybe I was just looking for trouble where there was none. Maybe it's just the painful recollections of the period.

I have such mixed feelings about this very warped version of the American Dream. Each time I meet with the NPS people, what comes up for me is confused and disturbing. It could be that digging deep in these writings will serve to help clarify the period and lay some ghosts... .

I don't really see myself as particularly self-promoting,

but I'm beginning to feel cornered into seeming so. Not a terribly comfortable role.

Came home yesterday to a message on my answering machine from MS-NBC-TV in New York, wanting an interview. They appear to have been referred by the National Park Service people. The interview has to do with Memorial Day, remembrances of Rosie the Riveter and living again in the time of war, I guess. At any rate, I didn't return the call (not knowing quite what to do with it). This morning I woke to another call, Ms. Erin Anderson, from their booking office asking if I would be available some day this week for a studio (local) interview, and did I plan to be at the Rosie Reception Center grand opening next Saturday afternoon on the Richmond Marina? "We may be placing a news truck at the site, and if so, we can do it then."


I told her that I just might not be quite what they're looking for since I had spent the war in a Jim Crow union hall filing cards, and that would make me more of a "Rosie-May" than a genuine "Rosie With Helmet and Welding Torch". "If you want my unvarnished report on the times, you're on. If not, you need to find yourself a flag waver." She said that she'd get back to me, but that while this was not the story she'd expected to find, it might be an even more important one to tell. "I'd like to talk with my producer and get back to you."

Ten minutes after she hung up, at around 9:00 on a Sunday morning(!), comes a call from the West Contra Costa Times wanting to do ... you' guessed it. Told him that -- if he had any questions -- I'd answer them now. We talked for about 15 minutes.

I'm concerned about getting myself identified as something that I'm distinctly not. I refused to be photographed with Mrs. Lynne Cheney while she was here on her book tour, and refused to attend the White House Reception two weeks ago. Not sure why the NPS continues to send the media to me, unless they agree that a dissonant voice is one of legitimacy and should be heard. I won't be used to bolster the image of Henry J, Kaiser, who didn't give a damn about bringing all those southerners (white and black) and then abandoning them at war's end to fend for themselves. He was into building ships, and social engineering was far from his mind, no more than an unintended consequence. That was a period when the country was still segregated and he imported segregation to the west coast where it had not yet become overt but lay dormant still. what happened here in those years may have accelerated the Civil Rights Revolution a decade later.. Guess I'm still angry about that.

Guess the ball's in MS-NBC's court. Will keep you posted. I've got to be a very small blip on their radar, and someone more in keeping with the goals of this weekend celebration may be a far better choice.

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