Thursday, October 27, 2005

Another resurrection day ...

Had forgotten for a moment that death comes in threes -- and Dorothy Pete, Lucretia Edwards, and Mary Otani obviously formed the triad. Can put that kind of introspection aside until the next cycle unfolds. I can stay in that place just so long before natural exuberance takes over and I'm again feeling the zest for living -- pressing against the edges of consciousness -- and back in the swim doing a reasonable breast stroke while pushing the river.

Despite what feels like the starter version of a cold, all sorts of wonderful mind games are going on in my head. Some were stirred by something I wrote a few days ago about those "...visions of a lifetime now being realized, finally," and about how exciting that can be.

Like inner cities across the country -- abandoned and left to rust and ruin as habitat for those who can afford to live nowhere else, Richmond suffers its urban core. In our city that part of the old downtown is situated between 3 railroad tracks, in "The Iron Triangle." The district is infamous in many ways. The crime stats match the level of need and is predictable by the lack of recreational resources for its young and mostly African American kids.

Prominent as a presence and a major negative influence on the lower end of the main street is a Rescue Mission that serves as a place for the depositing of troubled souls who struggle against drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and parollee status. It's safe to say that few other communities would accept such an enterprise, and that the county allows for little opportunity for objections. Add to these the homeless of all races who drift in and out as pressures wax and wane. Poverty and the aura of failure are the common denominators in this environment. In such a social climate, the pall of potential danger hangs over everything. The drug trade is highly visible and ever-present on street corners and in the park where dealers work with impunity and relatively little interference from the police.

I remember in the late Sixties when our little store -- in a similar area in Berkeley -- was being broken into so often that my young husband started spending his nights sleeping in a back office with a loaded rifle beside his cot. He could no longer afford to come home to suburban Walnut Creek at night -- the 28-mile drive made him vulnerable to break-ins and his desperation and paranoia effected our life together and contributed to our eventual divorce.

At one point he drove to the police department to demand better surveillance but was told by the officer on the desk "... it's convenient to have an area like this. When something happens in other parts of Berkeley -- we know where we can most likely pick up the culprit." The city was practicing an informal policy of crime containment -- and our building was right in the middle of their catchment area. Of course. I recall that the county methadone clinic was established within two blocks of our corner -- putting the addicts right in the middle of the "candy store," and no one saw that as inappropriate either for those being served or for the youngsters in the community and their families. At that time there were 11 halfway houses located in the city, 9 had been placed in our very low-income community. The cynicism is inescapable.

Richmond's historic downtown stands less than two miles from the National Park's interim reception center and -- should be set aside for historic preservation and restoration. Market forces and the redevelopment agency may deem otherwise. I don't know. If we follow the lead of many like communities, city government may well opt for one more unimaginative generic shopping district. What a pity that would be! What a missed opportunity. There is little recognition that this part of the city will be living in the midst of a national park soon, and that there are implications for related economic development that can help to redefine a civic identity that has suffered for years from poor image and disastrous crime rates.

One of my dreams is to find a way to help to create in the Iron Triangle an African American Arts & Entertainment District. The city still has a 40% black population mostly concentrated in the Iron Triangle, with the legacy of the Home Front WWII history. We need a memorial to those workers and to the artists who -- through their music -- enriched a time of persistent painful racial struggles for these hastily transplanted hard-working black folks.

That history involves a rich legacy of black music; both blues and jazz. During the war years Tappers Inn, Minnie Lou's, and the Savoy in North Richmond hosted the likes of Jimmy McCracklin, Bobby Blue Gland, Lightnin'' Hopkins, PeeWee Crayton, Wynonie Harris, Joe Liggins, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Otis and Little Esther, Howlin' Wolf, etc.  Richmond was the West Coast mecca for traditional blues that arrived with the great migration of African Americans who came from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma to work in the Kaiser shipyards -- and had little "home" to return to.  How did I know?  Because we opened Reid Records in South Berkeley on June 1st of 1945 to satisfy that demand for the expressions of black culture that arrived with them.

Many of the bluesmen and women stayed on at war's end to earn their way as chauffers, waiters, porters, red caps, maids, during the day and to make their music at night for little or nothing in the small storefront clubs that sprang up along the coast over the years. Their music, their techniques, their aura, didn't. That traveled overseas over the next 3 decades to find a home in Liverpool, London's East End, Paris, Amsterdam, and Sweden until the music later re-entered our country through the artistry of Eric Clapton, The Beatles, Keith Richards, etc., and swept the world to great acclaim and created great fortunes for those artists. Janet Joplin, Elvis Presley, and later, Bonnie Raitt, adopted the music and relayed it back to audiences who'd refused to accept it from the original black artists, but couldn't resist its power when expressed by whites. Of those musicians, Raitt, Clapton, and Richards have been foremost in crediting those who inspired their music and created their careers. To their credit, all three have tried consistently to honor the debt.

Somewhere in the world there needs to be a marker for the art form. Richmond is the natural center for the establishment of a Blues Hall of Fame. Here's our complement to the new national park; a world destination. It needs to be a place where the entire African Diaspora can be celebrated in a museum, rehearsal and performance spaces, workshops for set-building and costume-making, art galleries, cafes, small shops for souvenirs, clubs and restaurants that feature the great variety of African and African American arts and cuisine from Gullah to Cajun-Creole, Ethiopian, Ghanian, Brazilian, Cuban, South African, Caribbean, etc. Were I a child you'd have to beat me off with a stick!

We need to make it a place where we can celebrate our heritage and where non-blacks can come to learn. We need to have a place to grow new young black artists so that the music will not continue to be delivered by derivatives. We all (not only African Americans) need our children to know of this legacy and to be enriched by it. We need the arts passed on by those black masters still living among us before it's too late, and there are many such scattered around the West Coast and looking for somewhere to land. (Are you listenin' E.B. Wainwright and Johnny Tolbert?)

A friend once described to me a plan whereby artists from all of the disciplines were given partially subsidized live/work spaces in a district like ours -- this, in exchange for the sharing of their gifts with children in the local schools. Since most dancers, painters, sculptors, potters, weavers, musicians, etc., who live by their art have such a difficult time making ends meet, subsidies are essential for survival, but what they have to barter is priceless. When I think of a time when a critical mass of such creative people become a part of this community by living among us and sharing their talent with our young, I'm ecstatic!

The Iron Triangle can be transformed. We can replace degradation with creativity and new life. We can begin to stop watching our backs because our children might also have their eyes on the prize of new possibilities. African/American "Have-Littles" would again have a sense of place and might stop waiting around not-so-passively for gentrification to sweep them off into some other place where no one else wants to be now that they've lost those "jobs that nobody else wants to do." We can claim dignity by restoring the pride that now exists mainly in our places of worship, but that should move out from Sunday to enhance our weekday lives. The best jazz in the world now comes from the choir loft and has for years -- but only the most hip are aware of it.

And best of all, our children can learn to identify the artist within themselves.


If Dorian has the capacity -- given her mental deficits -- what about all those youngsters who are fully functioning but deprived of that spark of life and direction and hope?

It could happen ... but I'll need to strike a Faustian bargain with the devil for another 20 years!

Or not ... .

Photo: My younger son, David Allen Reid, current proprietor of Reid's, here seen at age 14 listening raptly to his teacher, Jim Stein, playing the blues in classtime at Pinél, a small private school named for the great French psychologist/educator. Both Dorian and David attended this Summerhill-inspired school in the Alhambra Valley near Martinez, California.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Tossed between too many options ... .

All I need is a good 45 hour day. Fitting my life into the current time frame just isn't working. No matter how I arrange my days, each midnight I fall into bed leaving behind huge pieces of work incomplete or barely begun. Maybe that's true for everyone. I don't really know. It's either that, or it's that I'm spread too thin at a period in life when there's simply not enough of me left to go around.

Work goes well. The sense of urgency grows with each day and is accellerated with each death of one of my contemporaries. Among the most recent losses were Lucretia Edwards, credited with leading the struggle for public access to the Richmond shoreline, and Mary Otani, whose path through life connected with my own in political activism. We were both active among the Unitarian-Universalists and with Consumer Co-op members in Berkeley years ago. Most recently Mary and I were founding members in the very effective collaborative, Vision-2000, which successfully worked toward a living wage for all city contracts and is currently working hard on the issue of just-cause evictions. Both these activists will be sorely missed by the communities so enriched by their dedication to guaranteeing the quality of life for us all.

Mortality is now palpable -- a constant fact of life. But it's not particularly morbid for some reason, just more demanding now than before. I'm less concerned with when or how the end will come, but with an occasional fleeting hope for an easy exit. Maybe this sensitivity to the relentless passage of time will lessen as days go by. But meanwhile, there's work to do and it doesn't appear that my replacement has turned up yet ... at least I haven't yet noticed her lurking anywhere in the background.

Talked briefly with son, Bob, last week and said to him in passing that I was (as usual) doing too much and that I seem to have reached a place in life where so many of my wildest visions are now being realized ... and that I've finally accumulated the skills and the contacts and the experience to make real things I'd only dreamed of over a long lifetime. I'm being entrapped by the seduction of the possible. I said to him, "...there is so much happening that I feel sometime that I'll simply explode into the next dimension at some point -- from the sheer excitement of that realization!"

His answer was, "...but, Mom, what a way to go!"


Photo: These three seeds were sent to me years ago by our friend, Lama Wangdor, in a note from Rewalser high in the Himalayas on the occasion of our marriage. They've always held a mystery for me. Have never known what would grow from them. They've served as a metaphor for all of life -- complete in their being. They represent both the beginning and the end of life -- as we all do. As fragile and as delicate as they appear to be, they as we -- are star stuff.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Another homegoing ...

If one lives long enough the number of deaths begin to overtake the number of births -- and funerals begin to overtake wedding events. It's the life cycle, and has been so since the beginning of time. This month brought the final days of Dorothy Marion (Reid) Pete whose 90th birthday we celebrated last year -- followed in only a few days by the arrival of Jessica's firstborn; a little boy. Those are the everyday miracles experienced in all of our lives. The story of Harlem is not:

During the beautiful memorial service for Dorothy, her son, Geoffrey, shared this touching and extraordinary little story of the deep relationship between his mother and her little cocker spaniel, "Harlem."

Dorothy was in her 91st year-- after a long and dedicated life -- and had been failing rapidly over the past several months. She was being lovingly cared for at home by her three sons, Geoffrey, Gregory, and Dennis. Gregory had taken over the role of primary caretaker in her final days.

Harlem had been her constant companion for years. During the memorial service a soft knowing giggle ran through the congregation when Geoffrey reminded us how -- whenever any one of her friends picked her up for an errand or churchgoing -- room in the car had to made for Harlem. He lived in and as Dorothy's shadow.

As she became more frail in her final days, Harlem was leashed so that he wouldn't be in the way of the increasing medical and personal attention that she now needed. Gregory et al were there to give her a soft landing into whatever afterlife her faith provided, and there wouldn't any longer be room for Harlem, obviously.

On the day of her death and cremation, Harlem was finally allowed off leash where he'd been kept near the kitchen -- tied up and isolated. Geoffrey thought it right to allow him to roam free for a bit after such an unaccustomed confinement. After a time Geoffrey looked out and called. No Harlem. A few hours later he'd still not returned. As the night wore on more time passed and still no Harlem. There was cause now for real concern. The little dog was not accustomed to the streets and could be in jeopardy.

In the morning the telephone rang and it was the voice of a kind stranger who had found and identified him by the phone number on the identification tag on his collar. Harlem had been found miles away from home wandering in the vicinity of the Chapel of the Chimes, the crematorium where Dorothy's remains ... .

Some things defy logic, and rightly so and are the stuff of legends.

This one was true -- and the cause for a deep silence that followed the telling of the story against the bank of flowers (mostly red roses) that framed the teller of the story.

Dorothy would have loved it.

Photo: Dorothy as she looked when I first knew her in the late 1930's. She was the sister of my husband, Mel's, father. She was the first African American secretary hired by the YWCA's main branch in downtown Oakland, California. She was also the first African American administrative aide to successive pastors of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church. Dorothy's ancestors arrived in California during the Civil War and have contributed significantly to the building of the West. To learn more about them click on California Black Pioneers under my photo on the top left.