Sunday, August 26, 2007

This sure beats the hell outa Bingo Nite at the Senior Center!
I'm not at all sure that this is what is meant by the term "Civic Engagement," but hey ...!

What a party!

Something wonderful is happening in this city, and we're all a part of it. The somber beginnings of the Fourth Street Park's annual picnic and barbecue gave way to a most wholesome and delightful community event imaginable. There were children everywhere, and families; nonprofits tabling and food vendors galore. There was great entertainment from a portable stage -- headed up by the New Orleans Gumbo Jazz Band from who knows where -- who were wonderful followed by the performers from the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts -- located in the Iron Triangle for about 40 years! The music was irresistible and when these photos were taken I'd succumbed to the traditional "Second Line" lure and found myself snaking my way in rhythm with the rest, waving my white rag while dancing along beside Jacqueline Vaca from the Redevelopment Agency twirling her purple umbrella! We circled the park a couple of times dancing to "When the Saints go marchin' in...", gathering more and more folks along the way as the contagion spread and caught others up in the joy of it all.

Back story: Within the first few minutes after I arrived from Berkeley, a photographer/historian friend from U.C. Santa Cruz approached and told me that he'd heard one of the men who hang out in this park regularly say to someone, "...if they wanna do sumpthin' good with this park, we can always do our boozin' someplace else!" Here was someone with absolutely nothing to his name offering to give up even his turf for the good of the order.

But the best was yet to come.

An hour or so later as I walked the long block back to my car -- and in so doing passed an open garage where; sitting in a back corner -- was Mrs. Lillie Mae Jones, matriarch of the Iron Triangle. She has been valiantly battling city hall for many decades for this community and is about to be honored by having a new housing development named in her honor. She has been wheelchair-bound for years and spends almost as much time now in the hospital as she does at home.

Lillie is visibly fragile now, and looks weary and in pain much of the time. I heard my name called while walking past so turned and headed back to where she was sitting in her wheelchair at the back of the garage -- two dogs and a small child huddled nearby. Lillie Mae said little, but waved to the child and asked that she go upstairs and "...get that picture for me." She greeted me with few words -- I sensed that she wasn't feeling well. It was also clear that this encounter was no accident. I waited for the child to return without a lot of talk; just a few pleasantries between us. She had been at the picnic earlier and may have been waiting to catch me in just this way.

When the little girl came back she was clutching something quite small in her little palm which she handed to Lillie Mae who then gave it to me with the words, "...this is my brother. He worked on the Home Front in the war. I want you to have it." Here was what was obviously a treasured possession and this was really a mini-ceremony as she released it to me with great solemnity. It was his worker's badge from Bethlehem Steel Yard in San Francisco. It held a tiny photograph. "I got some other stuff to give you when you have time to stop by." With those few words I felt dismissed. It was a precious moment I won't soon forget.

And now I was quietly pleased that I'd not changed out of uniform. This was an extremely important gift that was being presented not to me, but to an institution. This was gaining status for her now deceased brother by giving this record of his existence and his work to be honored by a federal institution. I could not have been more deeply honored than to serve as the bridge between this remarkable African American woman and a national agency that I'm growing to revere more with each day.

Tomorrow I will go back to take the proper forms that will give even more shape and solemnity to the ritual of the giving of this important artifact to our museum collection. This may be the first such gift we have from an African American male veteran of the Home Front war effort.

Maybe we need to add a chapter to the manual on Civic Engagement that will validate my non-traditional approach.

What an amazing and glorious day!

Photos by Ellen Gailing

Okay, let's get back to the unfolding of my new life as park ranger Betty ...

Over the weekend I got to test my ability to adapt to the demands of being (like comic Kathy Griffin) a "D-list celebrity". It's a mixed blessing. On the one hand I fully enjoy the new respect being shown for the National Park Service and for my role in it. The wearing of the uniform will take some getting used to since hardly anyone is as impressed by it as I am. Truly. I'm in awe of it, and will probably have to watch myself closely for signs of arrogance in the days to come. I feel at least six inches taller, and it is never more apparent than when I'm acting as a tour guide with my ranger partner.

Before I was uniformed, properly hatted, and badged, I sat quietly in one of the seats on the bus (somewhere near the middle) believing that the most important part of my work had already been completed in the managing of the logistics of the tour; taking the reservations; keeping the roster and doing the confirmations; seeing to it that the physical arrangements were properly completed, etc. That was enough. Since by the time all of this was accomplished, I had established a relationship with the 20 "tourists" and it felt right to be a part of the tour, itself. I had become a kind of link between the park and our guests. I saw this as proper civic engagement. That has changed rather dramatically.

Since becoming an authentic tour guide, I stand proudly behind the driver with my co-guide (a fantastic historian and interpreter) who carries the lion's share of the narration, but now I'm actively adding to the presentation; filling in the blanks; sharing my own stories of the period being careful to include any and all references to the racial segregation effects extant during those years. I'm discovering that there were a lot more words under this hat than I've ever have guessed! I'm fast becoming a kind of "authority" on the period, and am finding it easy to do that presentation factually and with little anger or emotion. It has the flavor of being a performance, so to speak. That history simply was. I've arrived at these advanced years with a sense of moral rightness being on my side and with little need to blame. Truth makes its own statement, and I can see people "getting it." What an amazing experience... .

Back to this weekend: I'd been invited to attend the centennial celebration of San Pablo Park in Berkeley. It was to include the unveiling of a huge plaque honoring Mrs. Frances Albrier, legendary activist/feminist who'd played a role in my own life. She was a dear friend of my grandfather, "Papa George" Allen, my best friend in childhood. Frances Albrier was one of the first "Rosies," having actively crashed through the barriers of racism of the unions and gotten herself hired at the Kaiser Shipyards as one of the first black women to get work. It felt right to be there as a uniformed representative of the Rosie the Riveter new national park -- to honor her memory.

Papa George and I would drive out from East Oakland to San Pablo Park in his little Model T every Sunday where I would sashay around the courts and shyly check out the boys (I was about 14) while Papa and uncle, "Daddy Joe" Warnie watched the barnstorming black baseball clubs play the California Eagles. I remember the Birmingham Black Barons well, one of my uncles knew one of the players.

It was those trips to the black baseball games that inspired those two old codgers to go into business together making and selling the most god-awful pralines (pronounced prah-leens, thank you) at the games. I still remember those ghastly bright pink coconut "splats" that would stain your hands for days! I think it took no more than one baseball season to discourage any more concoctions in the ole Kandy Kitchen in Daddy Joe's backyard! But the games went on as did the Penny Ante card games on Saturday nights and our trips to San Pablo park.

This was also the park where the Northern and Southern California African American tennis clubs competed every year with our players, (later Judge and Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson, Attorney and newspaper publisher, Tom Berkeley, et al) drawing huge crowds of spectators. This park was the background of much of my social life as an adolescent.

It was at San Pablo Park on just such a Sunday that I met Mel Reid, the man I was to marry a few years later. He was a handsome 17 year-old sitting on his bike with the canvas saddlebags holding the newspapers he was delivering that day. He later -- during WWII -- served this same park as its head playground director days while working in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond on the swing shift. This was a big one, "nostalgia-wise" for me. So much so that I decided to attend in full uniform. It was a kind of coming home since Frances Albrier was a dear friend of Papa George's with whom he occasionally played cards on weekends.

Once there I felt over-dressed. My "honoring" of their memory was a private thing. I had no reason or need to impress anyone. I'd asked my supervisor on Friday whether I should consider this invitation to attend the Berkeley celebration an official event and she'd given the go-ahead. I was not all that comfortable once there.

The only saving grace was that there were hundreds of children there and seeing little girls glance at me admiringly held its own magic. I'm aware now that each time I'm in a public situation I "announce" the opening of a new career path to those children who have never seen a park ranger of color in uniform and that's a powerful message to send.

In the middle of the ceremony my cell phone rang (wouldn't you know it?) and it was someone from another celebration taking place some miles away back in Richmond -- the annual Fourth Street Park celebration, that I'd never attended before. Being in huge crowds in the infamous Iron Triangle was a daunting experience that I generally opted out of. This feeling had never prevented me from attending meetings at the on-site Nevin Center, even at night, but a festival with its large crowds of revelers was another kettle of fish.

I made a quick decision when a second call came. I would go. It was now early afternoon and the party would be in its early stages and .... but I was still in uniform.

Photo: Proceedings at the Fourth Street Park Festival started with a parade against violence that featured these coffins representing lives lost through street violence in the Iron Triangle over recent weeks. Chilling, but effective. This was followed by prayer and a brief sermon by member of the clergy. An ominous beginning to what turned out to be an absolutely glorious Day!