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.
Odd times ... .

These monumental life changes I'm experiencing at the moment are having a definite effect upon the way I'm moving through time. Having so many years experience under me at this point has the effect of lending a quality of familiarity to almost everything that happens. There are some anomalies that pop up now and then and that cause me to suddenly and inexplicably act out in unexpected ways. The only consistency is in the fact that those moves -- though out of character -- seem natural, and guided by some equivalent of an internal GPS (Global Positioning System).

Case in point: Went to bed last night feeling lonely. Unusual for me. Though I've enjoyed a lifetime of warm friendships of a well-peopled world, I've also learned to deeply value being alone. Reading and writing and listening deep in the sheer wonder of being alive was a lesson learned long ago when I was a young mother living in suburbia as an "enemy alien." It happened during the summer of the disorienting breakdown that threatened to destroy me but failed in the effort.

It was an extremely hot mid-summer evening. It must have been after nine o'clock, but the temperature was still in the high eighties. The kids were in bed, except for Rick who was busy with one or another of his projects some distance away in his downstairs bedroom. I was sitting out on the sundeck that overlooked a large swimming pool just beyond the treetop of a huge black walnut tree that hugged the railing on the east side of the house. I'd sat on the floor leaning against a huge plate-glass window -- absently strumming my guitar while waiting for a brilliantly bright full moon to clear the branches on its arc across the sky. All I could see was the great light it cast. The tree was still hiding it from full view, but its promise was exciting as anything I could imagine. The anticipation of "The Show" shortened my breath and sharpened my awareness.

Then the magic! As I watched it emerge into full view, a Luna moth flew ever-so-lightly to the top of the tree and lit upon a leaf silhouetted against the velvet black sky! There was that instant of ephiphany -- a moment when the light of the moon (serving as background to the now luminous moth!) ignited its wings as if lit from within, and there we were; the moon, the moth, and me...equal components in this planetary drama of meaning! We were in perfect balance in the universe. It was a feeling I had only that one moment in my life. I can close my eyes and bring it back -- whole -- as needed, and have many times since. Realization that I was one-third of that improbable triad -- creating this incredible moment in eternity, was stunning! It remains permanently etched into my brain.

In a rush I knew that this was the moment in time when being alone was the essential element in my drama. Had there been even one other person present -- by the time I'd said, "Look!" it would have passed. I'd probably never have known it had occurred. How many other such events have I missed while engaging in idle conversation? I was riveted into the experience, and every brain cell knew it. Zen? Don't know. I did know that I was(am) as necessary to the experience as was that tiny moth, or gigantic luminous moon... .

Thought of that last night, and allowed a feeling into consciousness that is usually re-directed into perpetual busyness. How long has it been since I fell asleep with head buried in the hollow of the shoulder of a lover? Did the atypical thing then (guided by that internal GPS), logged on to Yahoo Personals and created a profile! Not sure I'm looking for anyone (seriously), but it might be interesting to be "found." Can't imagine being married again, or yielding my independence to any other human being, but I can imagine drowzing off with my head in the hollow of his shoulder, truly... .

Could be that the writings of yesterday were disturbing to me. The state of the world has me fearful of watching the news, and I'm a CSPAN junkie. My growing mistrust of leadership, local, state, and national, allows no sanctuary. Having experienced the world of politics over many years has demystified those processes and left me intimately aware of the human imperfections of so many who seek to lead us. My treasured sense of independence is slowly being eroded by forces that are far beyond my control -- and maybe always were. Having in my memory bank pictures of life lived in harmony with another makes for a quiet hunger that mere friendships and rewarding work simply may not have the capacity to any longer satisfy. I don't really know.

In the light of day I wonder why on earth I would have ever yielded to this fleeting sense of need? However, I trust myself enough to know that giving in to natural urges has always led me well. Quite simply, I may have needed to create that profile for myself more than I need a response from another temporarily lonely stranger. Perhaps by so doing I've proven to myself, again, that I am human enough to admit my needfulness and can now add the element of idle anticipation to provide a distraction from a deeply troubling immediate future... .

This morning it feels like an adventurous thing to have done, and I regret nothing!

Friday, May 14, 2004

Today started badly.

First call (just after eight o'clock) came from my mortgage company informing me that my last check had been returned. Scary. Even with everything working at top speed, our proposal for the Convention Center management won't be acted upon until mid-June, probably. The fiscal year will begin on July 1st, and it will take time for our contract to be acted upon.

As of today I will begin to live on my credit cards, something I've never done before -- nor has it been required of me. Fortunately, my credit is fine and -- having lived past the age of acquisition -- I have all of the creature comforts needed to survive fairly well without too much difficulty. My wants are modest and lifestyle easy to maintain. Wisely, I've invested in mutual funds that were intended for my retirement (if ever that happens), so all is not lost. My safety net is a modestly constructed, but if and when I feel the need, I can liquidate. It was not always that way. There is a familiarity to this feeling of financial insecurity. I've certainly lived it before, but not for a very long time.

Back to the Seventies:

It was a quiet day at Project Community. By now I was married to Bill and living the new and fascinating life of a faculty wife at the university. The old world had melted away. Walnut Creek had faded into the past, and adjusting to the intellectual richness presented by this new environment was all-consuming. It was soon destined to change irrevokably, but of that I was unaware. I'd had enough time to feel some regret about having dropped out of the lives of most of my family and friends -- two tiers, both those of my childhood, and those of the most recent quarter century of suburban life, but there was little time to give that too much thought, until this day:

It was Rick on the phone. "Mom, Dad is lying on the floor in the back office (of the store) unconscious. I can't rouse him! Please come!" Dropping everything, including the phone, I dashed for the parking lot and drove recklessly to our South Berkeley store. I'd instructed Rick to call an ambulance immediately, so I knew that Mel was being cared for. It was my son who drew me to where he was. I knew that Rick was fragile, and an alcoholic. Of course I was wrong. He'd ridden in the ambulance with his father, and I arrived distraught and frustrated to a place I'd not seen for years. The street and this once quiet blue-collar neighborhood had changed dramatically. Our store reflected the downward spiral that had occurred in the six or seven block area that made up the black community.

I walked around the shop for a few minutes, trying to re-orient myself to this business Mel and I had founded many years before finding little to connect with.

But this was surely not the time for remembering. I needed to go to the hospital to fulfill whatever role it was that former wives fulfill at such times, when you're caught up in the need to respond to a parental role -- one abandoned long ago. For Rick and my other sons, I instinctively knew that my current marital status would have to be set aside. It was "family" time. Dad was critically ill. Wherever the fault lay for the disintegration of our clan, family is what we had to be now; and we were.

Upon arriving at Herrick Hospital, I learned that Mel was in a diabetic coma (I knew nothing of his diabetes) and that he would have to have his left leg amputed at the knee in order to save his life. He'd apparently ignored his condition for years, had continued managing the business -- with Rick's help -- despite failing eyesight and no medical attention.

It was even more dire than this. He'd also been suffering a major mental depression for ages with no one aware of it. His need to fight the street had taken its toll. The streets were filled with those plying the drug trade. Prostitution was not only visible but blatant with little police control. When he'd complained at city hall that little was being done to protect the community he'd been told by the department, "...when things happen in other parts of town, we usually know where to pick up the perpetrators." This community was being used as a containment basin for the rest of the city.

This was 1978, and the year prior, 25% of the homicides that occurred in the city happened within the block upon which our building stood. According to Rick, the store had been broken into on a 3-month regular schedule. Mel by that time no longer lived away from the store, but had been sleeping on an old mattress in a back office with a rifle within easy reach. His life and business reflected the life on the streets. He'd become a lost soul. This good man who'd given his all for me and the kids in the early years was gone. In his place was this desparate soul who was no more than a shadow of the man I'd married long ago.

The discoveries of that morning changed my life for all time, and started a new cycle that came with its own set of learnings, values, and demands, some in direct conflict with the sophisticated and erudite life of the university culture. That morning ushered in life of a dramatically different kind, a life that introduced me to the underbelly of urban existence at a time when I was wonderfully prepared for what I was to find. I was psychologically ready to take full advantage of it, and did.

It was that evening that my husband Bill and I stood at Mel's hospital bed in ICU waiting for him to recover to find his left leg missing. This was to be their first meeting. Bill was at his professional best. He'd brought all of his psychologist self to the forefront while setting aside his Betty's husband self. It was a delicate moment for us all, but we survived it. It was good to have our sons witness this coming together beyond boundaries. It opened the door for the re-establishment of the friendship I'd shared with Mel, and in the days that followed to take him for his medical appointments, see to his care as we moved him into a retirement home after surgery, arrange for services and even handle his day-to-day shopping for most of the rest of his life.

The next step was dealing with the state of the business we'd created so long ago, and of discovering the depths of the disintegration of the assets we'd worked so hard to create for our children.

That would have to wait until tomorrow ... .

Thursday, May 13, 2004

It's been days since I last wrote ...

So much time has elapsed that I hardly know where to begin... .

Perhaps we'll just pick up with today:

Proposal for management of the Richmond Convention Center is moving even more quickly than I'd ever imagined. We're finding enthusiasm everywhere we turn, and offers of assistance are plentiful. The auditorium is in great shape, seats about 3500 in theater arrangements on the main floor, with six side conference rooms to work with as well. It's a gem of a public facility that has been terribly under-utilized for years.

Jennifer and I did a complete tour of the facility two days ago and today took some events promoters in to see it. They were enthusiastic about the place and it appears that we may have a buy-in. Lots of agreements to negotiate, and scenarios to explore, but I'm optimistic about the directions we seem to be headed in.

Our next meeting with the city manager is scheduled for next Monday at which time we'll refine the plans and continue to build the budget. So much for business.

Am continually close to being nauseated (actually) at the state of the world and the awfulness coming out of Iraq. Though there is a part of me that simply can't understand how anyone could expect that WAR has the capacity to be anything other than inhumane. Expecting there to be rules of engagement that make killing fair and compassionate in one case and animalistic and insane in another bears no logic for me. I suspect that this might be a fundamental male/female difference, but I'm no longer sure of that. It all points to a level of insanity that is frightening to consider even for an instant. If I allow my mind to go there, the nausea begins and I become lost and distraught.

Have been reading some of the conspiracy theories on the Internet and doing something I've rarely done before; I'm passing things along in the hope that -- whether believable or not to me -- they may cast more doubt upon the intentions of our administration and help to bring down the presidency. It's beginning to feel less important to me to get them to respond to my(our) petitions and pleas than to make an attempt to chip away at those who believe in the rightness of their purpose. Bush's polling has dropped below 50% now, and that is the first sign of hope in a long time. That means that his base may be crumbling. If we can't effect him(them!) perhaps we can effect that base of true believers. William Kristol sounded far less supportive this week, and some of the other pundits have begun to admit that the wheels are coming off the wagon. It's too early to tell, but just maybe... .

Meanwhile, I'll keep searching out powerfully-written columns online and sending them to my more conservative friends. Preaching to the choir accomplishes little.

Dorian is doing well. Other than having her bicycle sitting in front of the fireplace right in the middle of the livingroom, the rest is falling into place. We've staked out private parts of our small condo, and that works out pretty well. I'm fighting hard to allow her to be independent, but must admit to slipping into my mother place more often than I'd like. We may never really live apart again, though that is the intention. I really must admit that knowing that she's safe in these dreadful times is a comfort. In an emergency I'd be frantic, and we're living in a time of a constant need for vigilance. Falling to sleep at night knowing that she's safe on the blue futon on the livingroom floor with her two cats gives me a sense of peace. The disadvantages are less easily defined these days, and are beginning to be far outweighed by something I'd almost forgotten still lives in me. Being protective of my child is a parental mandate that continues to operate and took little to re-energize.