Sunday, December 28, 2008

The nightmare at Gregory Gardens in the Fifties ...

We'd completed construction on our new home on the banks of wooded Las Trampas creek in Walnut Creek. It had by this time been about 3 years since Mel and I had moved in with our 3 little boys, years before Dorian's birth, and he'd returned to full time managing of our store in Berkeley. Though I'd gained a few defenders life was still strained and fraught with uneasy feelings of constant threat. I was left to spend my days pretty much alone defending our right to exist in Suburbia against the many stay-at-home wives who were now our small family's major oppressors. Their spouses, like mine, were away earning the mortgage payments in San Francisco and Oakland. In looking back it was a strange time for us all, and a time remembered with pain and mixed feelings still.

Our status as the only black family in an otherwise white upscale community made us vulnerable to the hostility, but it also gave us visibility to those whose sense of morality would cause some to rise up to defend our rights to be among them. This sets the stage for a few weeks that I now see as the beginning of adulthood and what would prove to be a gradual move toward full independence for me as a young parent with an emerging sense of self worth. Over the years I would be gradually convinced of my own power to stand alone. But up to that point, I had been sustained by my upbringing in the belief that a mere woman could not survive without the support of the men in her life. My proud father and very traditional young husband provided the power needed to survive the times; even if only in my head. I questioned not. Compliance, thy name was Betty.

Yet ... .

For several days I'd been reading in the local newspaper of the growing hostility at a newly-built working-class development in the town of Pleasant Hill just a few miles away. The stories involved a young black couple (he was a truck driver and his pregnant wife, a nurse's aide). They'd bought one of the modest homes and were being threatened by an angry improvement association that was distributing ugly pamphlets and posting signs imploring the community to come together to prevent them from occupying their home, or brave the dire consequences. It was classic full-blown racist mayhem.

It was also not unlike the resistance that our family had experienced only a few years before. We'd failed to establish our rights and the immediate neighbors had organized in the same way; threatening to burn our lumber as it was delivered. It had been a devastating period in our lives, but it had been lived through and we'd all learned from the lessons I would now share. It was also a period where I was unable to speak for myself most of the time, but now could speak on behalf of someone else; and -- in the process -- finally have a chance to make my case, perhaps? I'd rarely been confronted by my neighbors. They were far too outwardly well-mannered for that. It was my children who'd suffered for the most part -- though I never could have guessed how much until much later. Vile racist statements expressed in casual dinner table conversation by parents (that would never be said to me, directly) would be hurled at my children in the school yards the next day by theirs.

David Bortin, an attorney practicing in Walnut Creek and member of a Unitarian fellowship consisting of some 25 young families, had read a letter I'd sent to the editor of the local paper after reading of the plight of the young couple. He'd called to say that he agreed with my position and offered to be of help. In the course of our conversation I mentioned that the Gregory Gardens Improvement Association had scheduled a meeting at the local school that very night and that I was thinking of attending. I'd go in order to let the community know that this change might be difficult but that they would all survive in the end. Perhaps my experience could be of help. He was concerned that I might be hurt and warned me to think about it carefully before doing such a thing. I promised. This was an obvious case of naivete and over-reaching. I simply under-estimated the power of "the Mob." I convinced David that -- while I'd learned how hurtful those angry and insulting words could be through hearsay, I'd never really heard the awful things my own neighbors had hurled in my direction, only those things that were rumored or written. I remember saying to him, " color will protect me. That kind of viciousness is never expressed in the presence of colored people, only behind our backs. I will go and they will hear me out and then I will leave." Such innocence. David then told me that he would also be there and that there may be others.

That early evening I dressed carefully, drove out to the school and parked in the crowded parking lot with little notice from anyone. (That should have been the warning.) I found my way into the auditorium and took an aisle seat about halfway up the center. As people continued to gather they huddled in small groups chatting. There were many men in the mix, I remember that for some reason; here to defend their "American" families.

The meeting was called to order by the president who presented the problem and called quickly for testimony from those gathered. It was then that the rage began to fill the room. One after another they angrily expressed the reasons that their homes must be saved from the "Invasion of the Undesirables!" They spoke of threatened property values, etc. I felt like a spy among them. Only 4 miles away I had become the blackest of women -- here I was invisible. They'd failed to pick up my "difference" -- my "undesirability" so that my protection had failed because they didn't recognize me as a black woman at all. I was just an innocent witness to the bitter racism for the first time in my life. I would see more of it in the days, weeks, and months following. I'd opened a new Pandora's Box by my newly adopted role of defender rather than victim.

Gregory Gardens was my official introduction to the shame we've finally begun to own and exorcise from our national psyche. It's taken more than half a century.

At the point where a woman viciously spat out the words, "...if we can't get the niggers out any other way, we can use the health department because of the filthy diseases they'll bring in!" I could be still no longer but rose from my seat and walked to the front of the room, turned to face the angry crowd, and started to speak. I identified myself then added, "I'm one of the undesirables you're speaking of."

I talked for about ten minutes non-stop while the group stared in disbelief. The words threatened to dry up mid-throat! I told them of our having built a home not too far away and of how we'd moved in under similar threat; about how that community had felt the same anger as they; that I knew that members of my community who were resistant had every right under the Constitution to feel that resentment but that that same Constitution guaranteed my family -- and their new neighbors -- the right to house our families as we wished and that they -- as we -- would survive the changes that had only to be lived through (remember this was the Fifties, ten long years before the birth of the modern Civil Rights Movement.)

Then, before a stunned audience, I walked straight down the aisle toward the main door leading out into the now menacingly dark parking lot. With a mouth bone dry and the panic about to take over my body, from behind I could hear chairs scraping against the floor of the auditorium and feet scuffling as people began to stir. I later learned that many left the meeting at that point. A reporter wrote in his piece the next day that it was clear that many were simply there out of a wish to understand the perceived problems and to listen to their neighbors. According to his article those attending were of mixed opinions and not acting as one. This was the last known meeting of the Improvement Association.

I could hear quick footsteps rushing from behind in the dark and panicked! A stranger caught up with me just as I (by now in tears) frantically pressed the key into the lock. He quickly assured me that he was with the press and that all he wanted was my name and phone number, "...I need to get back in there to see what's happened, but I'll call you later." Then I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. It was not threatening. Immediately there followed a voice saying, "'s alright. I'm David." As promised, he was there to help. David provided the hope that I so desperately needed in order to survive and grow into the power that would sustain me over a lifetime.

That evening served as introduction to the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Fellowship through David's acting on my behalf. Within a few short months I would become a member of its Board of Trustees with an active membership that would span the next 20 years, and with friendships that have survived the decades. A path would be set for adventures in social activism that would become the basis of my existence and the foundation of all that followed. Neither David nor I ever spoke of that night.

It was five years ago that I attended his memorial service. I'd long since moved back into the city after our children reached the point where suburbia no longer served their needs, my marriage had ended, and my personal life had changed dramatically. I returned that day out of a need to share the story of the discovery of my self, strengths, and power, and of David Bortin's vital role in that transformation.

The African American couple whom I never got to meet did eventually move into their home, but moved away from the community shortly after. The ugly racism raged on and grew even more virulent over time. But -- over all the years since -- I'm sure that I've known at some subconscious level that those unseen and silent supporters have been there questioning in the dark and ready to place a hand on my shoulder ... even when I thought myself alone. And though I surely wouldn't have been aware of it at that time, I'm now certain that they've gradually, over the years, become a metaphor for the millions of Americans who gathered in public squares, before town halls, and monuments throughout the country to hail "Change" in this new era of the national re-birth of democracy and freedom.

And I only remembered the story fully when Bruce made his call to interview Dave's widow, Beverly, and she mentioned that she'd met me some time after she'd joined the Fellowship when she'd married David. I'd forgotten that. I'd given Bruce her name as a possible interviewee without recalling that it was David's role in my life that mattered so critically to my metamorphosis into adulthood and civic responsibility.

I find myself wondering now whether I wasn't embarrassed at how far I'd over-reached at that time in misjudging such a highly volatile situation? Why had we not spoken of that awful evening ever again? But maybe that's the way it should be, after all, maybe talking about it would have diminished its effects upon my life -- and his?

There have been so many Davids in my life, symbolically; so many ...and I'm so grateful for them all, both then and now.

Photos: Lest we forget how far we've come.

Oh so many thoughts -- so little time -- remaining ... .

It's that time of year -- with this year bringing an unusual and more intense dose of nostalgia ... .

It has been increasing with each day ... first nudged into being by the Christmas season and its reminders of those now gone -- first husband and friend, Mel who is still my holiday fantasy companion since it was with Mel that the magic of Christmas was created for our children; my parents Dorson and Lottie whom I still remember creating an early Christmas out of a Salvation Army gift basket in that little bungalow on 77th Avenue in East Oakland. I deeply miss them both along with the often boisterous gang of relatives and friends that I've now outlived.

Little of the holiday magic held true through the ten years of marriage to Bill Soskin. While those holiday seasons were surely enjoyable, they've all been assigned now to the trash heap of non-events. That special element known as "children" is absolutely essential to Christmas -- even more than the religious symbolism, I think. While I may have outgrown that rich symbolism, I still believe in Santa Claus!

The most sorely missed across from the festive dinner table, though, is Rick, our eldest son. Has it really been 7 years? He's still in the room in the form of a lovely plant that I received from friends as a gift of condolence the day after his death. "Greenie" continues to be alive and well, and survives as a reminder of his troubled years that he shared with us while passing through eternity.

I think of the young women of the family to follow on the time line, and who will make their own contributions to the "life and times," with as much or as little consciousness as I had at their ages -- of just how much they will help to shape the world simply for having passed through. Perhaps it's best since I'm not sure that I could have met my challenges nearly as well had I known of just how critical "choice" can be in one's path toward fulfillment of a life.

There was the rare opportunity to re-visit years and events long forgotten through Bruce Frankel's visit to my world last week. Some of what was upturned has bought me face-to-face with forces that shaped the years I'm now living in ways that could never have been predicted nor in any way appreciated.

Having spent several of the past few days under the blankets -- with a case of something I've experienced a number of times over the past ten years (3, maybe?). The doctors said at the time when I was certain I'd suffered a minor stroke, that I'd picked up vertigo, some viral infection involving the inner ear. It is miserable, but non-lethal, but after the first dose of medication lasts perhaps 3 most miserable days; but what an awful 3 days! Dizziness and nausea accompanied by terminal drowziness of the type that takes away all signs of productivity and saps energy to the point where any thought of even moving one's eyes to the left or right brings on the spinning, not to mention any quick movement of the head either left, right, or (god forbid!) tilted back!

Just before the onset of the illness, I'd had an exchange with Bruce Frankel through email (it was now a week since his visit), from his home in New York. He'd augmented our interviews with phone conversations with a list of friends and relatives that followed that will flesh out a fuller portrait of the chapter about Betty that will be a part of his up-coming book on 14 of " ... those men and women who've made significant contributions to our life and times after the age of 60."

Lying still for the past several days has brought back an incident that may have been one of the most pivotal in my young life ... and I'd almost lost all memory of it. As a perceptive author, Bruce may have brought into focus the very point at which I started to become ... a place in my personal history that I might never have been able to find without his reconstructing those patterns of existence that escaped notice at the time.

... but that's for the next post.

Photo: Pictures taken with a young cousin, Nile, and (lower photo) my granddaughter, Rosie. Center: Yamina who may be the least known to me. These photos were taken in August at the Reid family reunion. These youngsters are young enough to still be searching for themselves ... and at about the age that I begin to find
the essential me.

Friday, December 19, 2008

You simply would not believe ... .

Was visited by an author with whom I've been occasionally corresponding for some time now. He's writing a book for which he has selected 14 elders from across the country that he wanted to use as subjects that would allow him to explore those people who, in his judgment, have made significant contributions to our life and times after the age of sixty. My "life and time" had come to his attention through a referral from SeniorNet, a virtual community I'd participated in for manyl years. Three of his prospective subjects were here on the West Coast (he lives in New York); a woman in Portland, another in Seattle, and me, here in the S.F. Bay Area.

Bruce Frankel arrived on Monday for 3 days of long drives from place-to-place; a tour of the scattered sites of Rosie the Riveter WWII/Home Front National Historical Park; a visit to the Richmond Museum of History (though closed on Tuesdays was graciously opened by Donald Bastin, the curator, so we could see the new exhibits); an installation of my friend and newly-elected mayor of the City of San Pablo, Leonard McNeil, on Monday evening; Mayor Ron Dellums' Christmas Party on the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland on Tuesday evening, lunches and suppers; long talks at my apartment, and, finally -- the drive back to the Oakland airport on Wednesday after a futile search for my grandfather, Papa George Allen's, little house in the Elmhurst district of East Oakland.

The day after he left I learned that media interviews were being arranged for me during the Inaugural trip, with the first long telephone call yesterday from someone from NBC out of Washington, D.C. It was probably made far easier -- coming on the heels of the work we'd done over the prior 3 days, but I felt hemmed in by a feeling that the caller was vaguely disappointed that I didn't turn out to be a riveter, welder, or something more closely resembling a more traditional "Rosie." It was just a feeling. I did my best to broaden the inquiry which is really far more exciting, but I'm not sure that I was successful. I'll have to be prepared to re-shape my responses and make them more closely targeted to what they're looking forward -- do you think?

I found myself talking more about the park than about myself during the interview, though he tried to get me to be more specific about my own contributions from time to time. I'm far more intrigued by the era and the changes it brought than about my own tiny role in it. And I don't think I'm being coy, it's quite true. I simply don't remember being particularly political, radical or otherwise, or even being really aware of the importance of the times in which I was living. That has come much later after a great deal more living.

The temptation is to give in to the tendency to fit my current more sophisticated sensibilities into that young 20 year-old naive Jim Crow union hall clerk and report the stories from that perspective. I simply can't do that. I was confused and frightened and as traumatized as anyone else with an ounce of sense who found themselves caught up in the sound and fury of that great mobilization and wartime reality.

I've learned more about those times since working in my current position -- with access to the professional studies that are within easy reach of my desk -- than I can ever dredge up from memory. Though I must say, the memories have been stirred and more and more parts of the story are revealed to me with each day. Photos and names now evoke exciting connecting-of-the-dots in ways that I would never have been able to bring together before now.

I'm awed by what's happening, and overwhelmed to the point that today I'm at home feeling just a bit under the weather. I'm just enough off center to suspect that introspection of this intensity may carry a cost, and that I probably need to take a few days off before leaving for the great event.

When I drove by the airport to pick up my author friend on Monday without ever having seen him or even a photo, something happened that has returned to mind fairly often over the past few hours.

After circling several times (I'd told him that I'd be in the NPS car and in uniform), seeing no one standing in front of Air Alaska -- finally there was a smiling man standing alone with his luggage. I waved and slowly drove toward him hugging the curb expecting that this was surely my guest. As I came to a stop and reached over to open the door with a welcoming smile, he appeared to be looking just a tad beyond me, but also smiling. One look through my rear view mirror and I could see the car right behind me. It was an honest mistake, and one probably made often. Nonetheless, I felt slightly embarrassed and drove on. One more time around and there was Bruce waiting -- recognizing me instantly. His big smile indicated that he'd seen the Arrowhead insignia on the side of the car and my distinctive park ranger hat and we were home free.

Somewhere down deep I fear that I'll get to Washington and the media will discover that the person they're waiting for is standing right behind me, and that all this is not really meant for me at all, but for the woman in the car behind ... .


Maybe, but I wonder if anyone ever really feels deserving of this much attention; really?

Photo: I'm the little girl in the middle of the front row, 6 years-old and just arrived from New Orleans after the great floods of 1927. We'd come to live in California with my grandfather. My mother, Lottie Allen Charbonnet, is sitting on the runningboard of Papa's old flivver being hugged by her cousin. She was probably traumatized by the experience. I remember that look of loss, even after all these years.

Friday, December 12, 2008

It's official!

I'm off to the Washington, D.C. for the Inauguration! And -- not scoopin' up behind the parade horses, either, but as an eternally grateful guest of our congressman, Rep. George Miller, and a seated guest at that. Can you imagine? A member of his staff informed me tonight of my good fortune. Their office had been planning busily with no one aware that I wasn't included among the informed. According to Latressa, they were trying to decide whether I would be among those seated or actually on one of the floats in the parade! (Try to wrap your brain around that!) In the excitement of planning, they'd lost sight of the fact that I would need to be making travel arrangements, etc. Tonight she was obviously delighted to be the one bearing the glad tidings. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry ... waited until I was safely in my car on the drive home to do both, simultaneously, out of sight of the cynical non-believers.

There have been rumors afloat for weeks that I might be going, but I was afraid to ask for confirmation lest I find it to be patently untrue and that I would be standing there grinning stupidly through the egg on my face. But finally word came, officially, that I will be joining the revelers on Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20th, disbelieving but jubilant like the 4 million others who are expected to line the streets and fill the ballrooms of the Capitol. I, too, will watch this transformational young leader sworn in as the 44th president of these United States of America!

I'm sure sleep will be impossible tonight as my mind turns over and over again -- the ongoing story of this extraordinary ordinary life of one small African American woman with so few of even the wildest dreams left unfulfilled.

Amen ... .

Photo: Click on this thumbnail for the enlargement. It's wonderful! Have no idea where it came from -- received it in an email from my niece when she heard of my upcoming adventure.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Remember those Fates I was appealing to ... ?

They're being most reasonable and cooperative and it begins to look as if we'll be able to hold our memorial/reunion to Rafiq at the old Masonic Temple in the Fruitvale as hoped.

A few phone calls to the present leaders in that colorful community led to tomorrow's visit to the old site. I hadn't seen it over all the years. There has been little reason to pass through that neighborhood. Had no idea if the old temple was actually still standing, but it is and -- as far as I could tell in a quick once-over from the street on my lunch hour today -- is quite possibly exactly as it was when we were last inside.

The colorful new Transit Village that now stands at 34th Avenue and International Boulevard begins at that building. The tiled arched entry is warmly inviting. The entire area has been redeveloped with shops and housing that reflects the Mexican, South and Central American, and Carribean cultures that make up a large part of the population of the Fruitvale district. It is so ethnically rich as is the entire city of Oakland.

At the invitation of management, I was invited to meet with the property manager at noontime today for a walk-through. We missed connections somehow, and I found myself standing outside next to the street vendors waiting -- trying to see what I could that would give some notion of how practical I was being in this wild fantasy.

After a long wait, (as subtly as possible), I clicked together the heels of my utility ranger brogues and circled 3 times -- hoping no one was noticing -- but this time it failed. No property manager. I'd left his cell phone number on my note pad back at my desk in Richmond. We've arranged to try again tomorrow at noon.

It was clear, however, that though the old building had been added to with neat shops that connected seamlessly to one wall-in-common, the stairway that I could see from the sidewalk didn't enter the old part of the structure (at least not to the level that I could make out). It appeared that the large assembly hall that we'd used was probably standing abandoned over all these years and that the old dinosaur has existed in Limbo since we were there. I did ask the vendor with whom I'd spent all of 20 minutes if the building was currently in use and she didn't know, "...except I seem to recall that there was a childcare center here a long time ago."

One of the really welcoming contacts I've made over the past few days has been involved with the Fruitvale project long enough to have actually remembered the Nu Upper Room and has offered to do anything that she can to help us fulfill the wishes of Rafiq's family and the Upper Room alumni who will gather in his memory. So far 3 staff members associated with the Transit Village have emailed offers of help. Their board will meet soon and our request will be considered. The history we're refreshing adds to the status of the historic Masonic Temple and to the district, which makes it of particular interest to their enterprise.

Meanwhile, a small group of us will gather Monday evening at the Guerrilla Cafe run by visual artist, Keba Konte, on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley to remember and begin to plan. It will be the first in a series of memorial events to be held in honor of Rafiq and his legacy. Hopefully, the Memorial service and Reunion at the Old Temple is planned for sometime after the first of January.

On Monday I'll take along my precious tattered manila envelope and its collection of artifacts to give to Aisha and the others. They'll know what to do with them. Perhaps they'll form the beginning of the formal telling of that colorful Hip Hop history that will serve a new generation of emerging young artists. The Bay Area has been home to generations of Muses for the arts, not the least of which are those who found their creative voices at the Nu Upper Room.

Working with the park service has given me a keen appreciation for this kind of stewardship and of the value and necessity in historic preservation. My advanced age seems to have brought with it the confidence and the right to determine what is precious and deserving of preservation. Coming into that kind of awareness sometimes leaves me awestruck ... with a sense of wonder at the appropriateness of such an arrangement. But then I truly believe that I've had the ability to recognize greatness over a long lifetime. What's changed is that I've now lived enough years to own that ability without flinching.

(Not much humility in that paragraph, is there?)

Silly, maybe, but it kind of justifies my continuing existence -- at least for now, and maybe next week, too.

Photo: Works of Nu Upper Room Alumnus, Keba Konte.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Have you ever wondered about how some who've been singled out as "special" (and of whom you've never heard) managed to get into the literature?

I've never really had occasion to wonder about that until fairly recently, but having found myself approached by several writers over the past few years -- in the process of books they're working on has given rise to the questioning ... .

Does it really take no more than the living of a life ever so slightly above the fold? This appears to be what I've spent a lifetime doing without conscious awareness of it. There has been nothing, no one, to compare my life to. So few of us can do so except on rare occasion when something monumental happens and we're "outed" for some reason completely beyond our control.

There has been little occasion before the advent of the Internet for ordinary folks to share their lives in the way that I've been able to do over the past seven years.

The early experience through membership in Cyberspace through SeniorNet prepared me for trusting the virtual world with my truths. Through that online program for seniors, I've been actively involved in friendships with people I've never met and many with whom I've shared the most intimate facts of my existence; many of whom have now passed on. That led to blogging, and the ability to reflect on life as it occurs in ways that (I've now learned) are in no way typical of the lives of anyone else on the planet. The fact that we're all one-of-a-kind persons gets lost, doesn't it? Each on his or her own unique orbital path, and each subtly changing the world as we encircle it. I don't believe enough attention is paid to that mind-boggling truth.

Some time during December an author from New York will be traveling west for interviews that will include me in one of the later chapters of a book he is working on. There is a part of me that cannot believe that there is anything worth holding for posterity in the life of one woman with so few recognizable credentials that would merit that kind of attention. There's another part of me that sees cause for celebrating the extraordinary ordinariness of this one life. It's kind of like an Ira Glass of NPR's This American Life taking on the Nature of Existence; a bit more e.e. cummings or Charles Schulz than Will Durant or Aristotle; more Sarah Vowell than Joan Didion or Susan Sontag, maybe. But then why not, one might ask?

Tennyrate, I've agreed and will (some time this month) meet with someone who sees value in what he's learned from my writings and biography and who will add my story to those of others he's exploring for inclusion in his work. He will interview friends and family for a more complete picture upon which to build his portrait. I will be curious to learn just what it is that he sees here -- but perhaps that's the secret; to be written about is to be included in this great human experiment -- leaning with countless unknown others in the direction of positive social change -- trusting that we're all being propelled into a future that will bring humankind to its full planetary promise.

That sounds so nauseatingly preposterous; so utterly pompous! But how does one possibly absorb what feels like undeserved celebrity at my age? Would love to be noted for having worked out a reasonable bargain with Fate for another decade as rich as the past few have been. I'm beginning to suspect that the good stuff is cumulative, and that the least known fact is that they don't seem to begin until after one has entered the second half. It took that long to begin to see myself as a free-standing individual being on a solitary journey through time. Before that -- like most women, I suppose, I was a purely relational being, one defined by those around and dependent upon them for their existence. Perhaps the best of all worlds is to have the chance to live both periods vigorously; which I certainly did with the support of the two men to whom I was married (sequentially) and children whom I love dearly and am still sharing a significant part of my life with. Maybe more attention needs to be paid to that kind of transition so that it can be anticipated and more fully appreciated. Had I known ... .

But then, would I have lived any differently? Probably not.

Maybe living life in a constant state of surprise is preferable to any other alternative.

Photo: Photo taken years ago at the home of Archdeacon John Weaver of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California. We were meeting to discuss the upcoming nation's 1976 centennial celebration.

Lower: Author and noted humorist, Sarah Vowell.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Lovely Thanksgiving day with my nuclear family, (Bob, David, and Dorian) -- neither grandchildren nor friends were with us this year... .

It was a very special day which turned out to be particularly sweet. Maybe it was the background themes of the Bilal family being played out across town in ICU ... for whatever reason, my own deep appreciation for another year of closeness to my 3 living children was keenly felt.

There was a fire in the grate, turkey roasting slowly, yams a-candying in the warming oven, and a keen sense of my mortality -- aware that the fears of death are lessening with each accumulating year -- and a growing sense of the need to prepare for the day when life will end and forever will begin.

We talked at some length about legacy, estate planning, upcoming property tax payments due, and what about long range plans? I can't recall ever having had such conversations without having them accompanied by sorrow, regrets, punctuated by painful silences. This year it was different. Perhaps Thanksgiving is the appropriate time to delve into such matters; a time when the affects are muted -- softened -- when naturally combined with feelings of love and gratitude.

I have been and am being among the most insanely fortunate women on the planet. I'm still reaching for the brass ring ... and more often than not grasping it successfully.

Next weekend will be spent in Mendocino with a man who means much to me, and with whom I can share those things that can only hold meaning between peers. He's the grownup in my life; someone who knows what my words mean because we're traveling through the same thin slice of eternity together. There aren't too many miles left on either of us, but we're chuggin' along quite nicely, thank you.

There are real generational differences. This may be theoretical to the young, but we both know that those differences are critical to our ability to accepting our mortality and savoring the now as all there is, ever was, or will be.

We'll have supper together this evening (sent the leftovers out the door with the kids after dinner in anticipation) and I'll again enjoy the warmth of feeling cherished.

What a wondrous thing is companionship in these years... .

It's over. Rafiq took leave of this world in the dead of night -- sometime after four o'clock ...

Will post information about his memorial service when life has returned to what passes for normal in this extraordinary life of mine -- for friends who will want to know.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

How the mind doth raceth ... .

At a time when I should be choppin' and bastin' in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner, instead I'm still lost in time -- back with that unlikely underground arts movement that so excited the active artist submerged not so deeply inside. In other lives I surely must have painted huge canvasses; sculpted magnificent shapes and figures; danced before kings in grand marble palaces ... (maybe sang in heavenly choirs?).

The sheer luck of having Rafiq and his world enter into my (temporary) life as a merchant in Berkeley awakened a part of myself that emerged (this time) in a support role that fit nicely into the current incarnation. (Ye doeth what ye canneth.)

(That kind of talk is surely going to threaten my standing in the Atheist/Agnostic community.)

One of the great benefits of being old and still standing is that one develops this amazing facility for dot-connecting; for knowing how all the stories turned out; and of being able to link together chapters of living that younger folks lack the capacity for. No fault of their own, donchaknow, they just haven't lived long enough yet. Some things require mellowing and just a tad more humility.

For instance, I've grown to the age where I get awards for being able to tie my own shoes while the young struggle for recognition and appreciation. I suspect that someone will want to recognize me for calling attention to this rich history of the Upper Room when my major role was one of seeing to it that there was always toilet tissue in the bathrooms and that all the lights were turned off as we left after an evening of celebration. That's what grownups were for in that enterprise; except for Rafiq and Muhammed Al-Amin who served as Gurus and Chiefs of Inspirations for the young, the old, and the in-betweens who were attracted over time to their imperfect Camelot. The Nu Upper Room was a youth driven impudent and edgy enterprise rare and deserving of nurturing and protection by the rest of us. At that we failed miserably.

Maybe it had to be underground in order to protect it from contamination by the unknowing; a question worth asking. Perhaps an element in its power was in its fragility. Maybe it was meant to flame high and bright then fade into oblivion, having sewn its seeds to be emulated elsewhere in the world. But there is tragedy in the fact that the history has been lost, and those who lived it have been dispersed to the winds with few knowing of its existence, though I suspect many who are still around will come together in remembrance soon.

I've wondered, from time to time, just what might have been the relationship (if any) between the loss of the Nu Upper Room and the emergence of the East Oakland Side Shows? Did some of that creative energy eventually move out onto to the streets in search of expression? Had anyone known, might it have been different? Is the timing all wrong for this to have been in any way connected?

(The musings of an undisciplined mind.)

Probably not.

But then ... .

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

When last I wrote, death was still hovering ... and so he lingers ...

Aisha called a moment ago to say that -- though no longer on life-sustaining medication or breathing apparatus, Rafiq continues to cling to this world -- held to this dimension by his faith and great love of family, I'm certain. She sounded so tired ... her voice wooden with fatigue and concern ... .

It occurred to me yesterday that there could be no greater tribute than if we could somehow hold that reunion he so wished for last year and have it serve as his memorial -- and that we gather together in the old Masonic Temple (still standing and still waiting decisions about restoration or demolition after all these years - the usual fate of such institutions that get caught up in redevelopment projections). I suspect that the venerable old building is being used for storage and covered with dust and cobwebs, but just supposing... ?

Sent off an inquiry to a friend in government, emailed my newspaper columnist cousin with whom I shared some awesome on-site Upper Room experiences long ago, -- closed my eyes and twirled myself around 3 times, clicked the heels of my sturdy government-issued ranger brogues -- (this would take something far more substantial than sequin-covered scarlet pumps -- even if designed by Faragamo or Jimmy Choo himself) and made a fervent silent wish... .

On Friday I'll check into possibilities with the power of positive thinking ablaze and will dare the Fates to not comply!

(Will let you know how I make out with the Fates after I've completed my grandmotherly duties in my Thanksgiving kitchen.)

Photos: These imaginative drawings are the work of young Upper Room visual artist, Naven Norling, long since relocated to New York where I'm sure he's found great success over the intervening years. (click on these thumbnails for details)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sadness reigns ... My dear friend, Rafiq Bilal, the green-eyed Avatar, is dying.

What wisp of life that remains (if any) will disappear in a few hours, surely ...

Yesterday I received an early morning call while driving to work. ("Sorry, Aisha, I can't answer now but will call back soon.") Upon reaching my desk and returning the call to learn that her father, Rafiq, was now beyond medical help. The dreaded words spilled out, "they're going to remove life supports today, Betty, and if you can be with us ... ". Of course.

I've seen Rafiq twice since our great Upper Room adventure over a decade ago. Once a year or two ago when invited to meet with him and those he'd summoned to talk about a possible Upper Room reunion; and again two weeks ago when I visited him in ICU a few days after the historic presidential election. He was lucid and excited despite the tubes and attachments we had to talk through. One of his friends had discovered my references to him on some early blog entries when she was looking for material for his obituary. She emailed me with the sad news. Fortunately, he rallied after being resuscitated 3 times, and when I visited with him, he was in high spirits. The fact that his family, friends, and I could come together so seamlessly after so much time has elapsed speaks to the intensity of our earlier encounter 10-15 years ago.

Quickly dispatching my morning calendar, I hopped back into my car and headed for Alta Bates Hospital in Oakland to join with family members and friends to encircle his hospital bed in ICU and wait for the end. I stood for a time at the foot of the bed with fingers wrapped round his unmoving right ankle; feeling the warmth that would soon bleed away with the ending of the "extraordinary measures" that were holding him in the room with us. Aisha saw faint signs of responsiveness from time to time - indicating that he was aware of our presence.

All of the trappings of the end-times were present; gauges and meters measuring life, respirator regularly keeping its fatal cadence; I recalled similar scenes from earlier times and tried oh so hard to push them away in order to give myself fully to this moment -- this transition into ... .

His is a devout Muslim family with women properly though hastily draping head scarves in accordance with religious protocols. I was out of sync with their reality in my uniform and distinctive NPS hat. It felt strange, but I took heart in the fact that my head, too, was properly covered as the Imam prayed in a language I couldn't identify. There had been no time to change out of uniform though I felt certain that no one took offense. Another example of NPS "in the community." It's also an African American family so there was the low and lovely voice of a young woman singing and humming, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," and "Oh Freedom!" almost inaudibly. The amalgam of cultures was fitting, beautiful, and magnificently "American".

I recalled that bulging manila packet in my files holding remnants of the Nu Upper Room artifacts collected hastily as Jennifer and I were closing the old historic meeting place down for the last time before the old building (recently so festive) again went dormant until the scheduled demolition would take place in preparation for the construction of the long-anticipated transit village.

It all seemed so very long ago -- the Nineties. Remembered how long I've waited for the right place to act as a repository for the collection of colorful and descriptive flyers, posters, articles, Rafiq's manuscripts that so well described his life, his hopes, and his vision for the future.

(Where would the world be without its dreamers?)

I tried to remember why I'd always attributed genuis to this dear friend -- after all what on earth had he personally accomplished during a wildly varied and occasionally troubled life journey?

Among my souvenirs is a manuscript of an autobiography he'd sent to me to critique -- but which I'd chosen to simply enjoy. Then it struck me. What he meant to us all was not so much what he'd done, but what a generation of young people had accomplished because of his unwavering belief in them.

This was the precious gift of

Rafiq Abdul-Malik El-Bilal - 1942-2008

We were all the better for having had him enter our lives and for the sharing of those unforgettable years of creativity, passion for justice and fairness, and communal love.

One day his legacy will find its way into the cultural archives and the world will learn of his positive influences on a generation that is currently infusing the art world with the magic we nurtured together at the Nu Upper Room at the corner of 34th Avenue and International Boulevard in Oakland, California. Rafiq's was the very soul of Hip Hop at its finest.

Sleep well, friend ... .

Note: For more information about The Nu Upper Room, insert title in the search bar at the upper left corner above the archives, and the link will take you to more flyers, art work, and information about this fascinating experiment in arts and culture in the early days of Hip Hop.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Holiday season started yesterday with the artist's reception at N.I.A.D. (National Institute for Artists with Disabilities) ... .

followed by a trip to the Richmond Museum of History that was featuring a new exhibit of the city's WWII years with many items I'd not seen before, and with especial emphasis on the home front stories. It's a fine show.

When I arrived at the museum and walked past the refreshment table I could hear my own voice being amplified above the conversations of the guests. Couldn't quite make out what I was saying, but the voice drew me deeper into the gallery to find my image; a huge projection against the wall of the darkened room. Directly across and facing mine was an equally large image of my young interviewer, Rodrigo. We were in earnest conversation across the space now opened up to public view. It was magical!

The gallery was empty except for a row of about a dozen chairs lined up against two opposing walls for those who wanted to experience "The Richmond Voting Project," designed by artist Sanjit Sethi for the Richmond Art Center's Public Arts program. This was the multimedia exhibit that I'd participated in with Rodrigo a few weeks ago. Ours was one of four conversations between teens and elders presented in the work. On the north/south walls were projections of our "talking heads" in a most interesting multimedia art piece.

Since the invitation to participate had come early on that Friday morning with no preparation for the late afternoon taping -- I couldn't recall just what we'd talked about except in broad strokes. Given my active civic life, enough time has past that I've forgotten all but the purpose of the piece; sharing our earliest experiences as voters with the young people. Yesterday I wanted nothing more than to be able to sit with the show and hear myself and my young interviewer -- to have some sense of what I'd projected to the many viewers who would experience this work. It was not to be. I'd arrived late (having come from the NIAD reception), and there were few people still around. The sound system was such that it was impossible to make any sense of it with the ambient sounds interfering -- but I do recall that -- on that day -- I'd come away with strong positive feelings about what we'd done, and was perfectly happy to have whatever the "it" was shared with the community.

But I'd still give a lot to know something more about the content ... maybe I'll be able to convince someone to allow me to be in the museum alone, one of these days, so that I can have some sense of just why I felt so good about it. Maybe it's one of those things one shouldn't re-examine. Maybe feeling good about having done it is all that's needed.

Seeing oneself projected large enough to fill a entire wall of a gallery is pretty overwhelming, but seeing that beautiful young face of Rodrigo looking interested from the opposite wall -- and quite involved in our conversation compensated for outrageously magnified age spots, wrinkles, stray hairs, and anything else that my ego may have wished were otherwise.

Yesterday was a good day.

Photo: Holiday card by NIAD artist Sylvia Fragoso. I look forward each year to the sale of the artist's work - these cards are so fine! You may find more on the NIAD website and can order by mail, I believe.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Lay in bed this morning listening to the hour-long panel discussion we taped last Sunday; "Wrap up for the Election" ... .

What a trip!

My original impressions about the event were right on. The only thing missing was some indication that I was seriously considering bopping the columnist (sitting to my right) over the head with my umbrella! This morning I lay there in my pajamas laughing out loud at the thought of it, and wishing I'd said so on the air. This young man simply couldn't enjoy the moment. He sounded like Eeyore of the Pooh stories. I was even more annoyed listening to the conversation one whole week after the fact.

Except for wishing I'd delivered words profound enough to fit the historic occasion we were gathered to talk about, I felt reasonably comfortable while listening.

I heard what was obvious; that poor Mr. President-elect may have inherited an electorate that has lost sight of the fact that this is a participatory democracy that requires that we the people must remain in the equation. What specific policies he will enact; what programs he will immediately introduce are of less importance to me than what is it that we as a nation will become under his leadership. It is obvious that we may have finally elected someone who is ready and willing to tap into our considerable strengths. As I said at the end of the taping, "...he needs me nipping at his heels. His stated plan is to govern from the bottom up. I take him at his word, and plan to go on being as political as I've always been.

You can hear the panel discussion at There's a little box on the left side of the screen where it says, "Listen to the Globe". You just click on the black section in the middle of the box. When I figure out how to do so I'll post the discussion in CBreaux Annex.

Meanwhile, I plan to keep my day job.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It was a long night of tossing fitfully -- dreams of the last time Rick and Gordon and I were together ...

on board the SS Red Oak Victory as she was being towed down from the mothball fleet berthed at Benicia ten years ago. She was a gift from the Navy to the museum and would be restored lovingly by veterans of WWII over the next ten years. Gordon had been working as a volunteer for the Richmond Museum of History and had been enthusiastically stamping and folding invitations and otherwise engaged in the planning of this grand adventure. I was working at the time as field representative for Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, and had made it onto the invitation list as such. Rick was there with Gordon. We were so happy that day -- with several hundred other celebrants; with fire boats greeting us with their giant sprays; with WWII planes flying overhead as we sailed triumphantly under the Richmond/San Rafael bridge!

One year later Gordon would be dead of throat cancer and Rick would soon follow him into that watery grave beside the ship -- a victim of alcoholic abuse and the pain of rejection since childhood. They were not only a gay couple, but Gordon was white and from Portland, Maine, and Rick was African American. They were scorned on both scores.

Woke this morning feeling very tired and forlorn (old fashioned word, but fitting), and I'm foolish to think that I can face today unmoved by memories of their loss. A microphone in my hands might be very risky. I'll stand at attention with the others. Will surely hold the flowers for the ceremony -- because my work demands that I fulfill those duties. It will be difficult to remain in the present and not see that very painful past. The triggers are hairlike, and hard to control. I will ask to be relieved of the "saying of a few words" as planned.

I dare not tempt fate ... .

There will be many opportunities to challenge conventional thinking on the matter of same sex marriage. Today is about something quite different. Today we honor the veterans of all wars and there is a responsibility to contribute to this ceremony in the ways that are pre-ordained by custom.

But there will be moments -- some time between one o'clock and four when my stint ends -- when I can stand alone at the railing and remember the little boy I so loved and have now outlived by eight long years.

The holiday season is always the most painful.

Small wonder that the cracks in my psychological armor were pierced on Sunday.

It's Misery Eve... .

Monday, November 10, 2008

Participated as a panelist in a radio wrap-up of the presidential election ... .

That was Sunday afternoon.

I arrived at the offices of The Globe, a local African American Newspaper with a radio division. The moderator is a friend of long-standing and someone I find it difficult to say no to -- ever.

The other two panelists were a columnist for the newspaper and a young fourth grade teacher from the local school district. Both were male.

I was in a foul mood for reasons unclear at the time, and I'm afraid it showed. I felt myself increasingly combative with one of the panelists; at odds with his opinions more often than not. Though it was an internal battle that was being waged with myself and I suspect hardly showed except harmlessly. Not sure about the why of it, but some of the not so subtle irritation had to do with what I heard as his inexplicable conservatism. His cautious attitude was annoying, though this was someone I'd never met before, so such feelings were clearly irrational.

I heard myself say at one point, "...O Lordy, I expect any minute now to hear you say -- with all deliberate speed!" I was clearly the most liberal (does that word still mean what it used to?) among the three of us, and that surprised me. I would have imagined that young people would be far more daring and "progressive." It was not to be. They were as old and as measured and as conservative (if that word still means what I thought it did) as one might imagine about men twice their age. Though the teacher was clearly more of a free thinker than the columnist, who was a Stanford grad and an attorney -- and clearly right of center.

I suppose I wasn't ready yet to get out of my paper hat, and felt that my parade was being rained on. It may have been as simple as that.

I may be in a confetti mood for days!

But then the irritation may have been related to excruciatingly painful events I was subconsciously trying hard to smother ... it's that time of year.

Tomorrow I will be in uniform participating in Veterans Day observances on board the SS Red Oak Victory at Shipyard 3. I'll speak a few words to the visitors in the planned ceremony and will participate in the flower tribute. I will be representing Rosie the Riveter WWII/Home Front National Historical Park, officially. The ceremony will be an emotional one for me; though no one will know.

It was from the deck of the Red Oak Victory that I scattered the ashes of my eldest son, Dale Richard Reid, 8 years ago, in the autumn of the year 2000. I held his remains in my hand -- combined them with beautiful red roses as I let them drop over the rail -- one by one -- into the waters below. It was just 18 months after Rick and I had scattered the remains of his partner, Gordon Higgins in the same manner -- from this ship.

Their's had been an 18 year monogamous relationship that ended with their deaths, just months apart. Two lives destroyed by a thinly-veiled staggered act of suicide brought on by alcoholism and the heartbreak of lifelong social rejection.

On the same day that brought such exaltation with the Obama victory ... Proposition 8 passed in the state of California overturning the right of same sex couples to marry. There is great irony in the fact that the same African American voters who helped to bring the great joy of the election of Barack Obama-- voted simultaneously to take away the precious right of others to wed. How in the world could anyone choose against the right to love? What a tragic juxtaposition of events!

I'm only becoming aware as my fingers tap the keys -- why I was so irritated at the taping. Small wonder, right?

How I wish I could have influenced those who voted away the rights of others ... how I wish they could realize the pain of rejection inflicted upon so many who so recently were given the right to wed ... but then, how on earth could African Americans not know? Is that not the stony road that we've just traveled?

I'll stand at the rail tomorrow and drop red roses into the waters, again. This time for all those who perished in all of the wars of our time and before. I'm certain that this struggle, too, will one day be won -- but please, let no one suggest that it will happen "with all deliberate speed"!

Then -- if I'm lucky -- I'll try to get back into my paper hat for another round of exaltation -- once I get past the tears ... .

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Unlikely, perhaps unrecognized -- gentle Revolutionary ... .

He was born in racist Greenville, Mississippi, in 1936. He died far too young. He grew up in Maryland, in the shadow of a Capitol built by slaves. There is no way that Jim Henson could have not been shaped by his times -- the Civil Rights movement was surely playing powerfully in the background of his life. The influences of the vestiges of the Civil War; the trail of violence that marked his birthplace; the history of lynchings, the lives sacrificed for the right to vote ... .

Strangely, it was the memory of this gentle artist with the inner child so strongly influencing his work that has haunted me in the days following the election of our new president.

Henson, alone, may have quietly changed the mindset of an entire generation of children who were enchanted by his multi-colored, multi-everything creatures who slowly chipped away at the way we saw ourselves and one another. He taught compassion to some and self-esteem to others -- and love to all.

Henson and his Children's Television Workshop confronted the stereotypes and created pathways between children of every color and culture. He did it at a time when they were eager to learn and accepting of differences. We all got to learn how "one of these things is not like the other" and how it "isn't easy bein' green" from a thoughtful and wise Kermit the Frog. And our parents were listening in the other room as the tiny ones -- so malleable -- so innocent -- so open-- experienced the evolution of a nation's ethos -- and in time were touched as deeply as were the children.

Does anyone doubt, any longer, the power in early childhood education? Has it dawned on anyone besides me (and Linda Tillery, of course) that those babies of the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and beyond are now sitting in the boardrooms of major corporations; are the legislators now entering the state houses across the nation; are running the military and guiding the arts? They're the Sesame Street alumni, and they "got it!"

If only he could have lived to see how his magical creatures helped to change the world!

On Tuesday, those Sesame Street graduates were gathered on the malls, in front of the courthouses, waving American flags in town squares all across the country. They've reclaimed "patriotism" and sentimentality. They came together spontaneously in the thousands, peacefully, in celebration at Grants Park in Chicago; and in the far corners of the world. They were proud of themselves and of their new president-elect, knowing that we'd all crossed a threshold of some sort and that life would not be the same, ever again.

The little Obama girls will see a very different world than the one that Jim Henson was born into, and it's my guess that he intended it to be just that way.

And, I do believe that we have a ways to go still before equality is fully realized for all, but those facing up to that challenge are approaching it from the same side of the social barriers --and we're about as varied as those lovable Muppets are that Jim Henson gave to the world.

There are many heroes who contributed to this movement, and Jim Henson should be up there with the rest of them.

Photo: Bottom photo taken in Brisbane, Australia, when the election outcome was announced to the world.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

So many moving images over the past weeks... gave up trying to save them all, but this is the one that left me speechless and awash in tears ... .

It came in an email with this message:

Subject: A picture worth 158 years
Date: November 2, 2008 12:02 PM

The picture above is from the Obama rally in St. Louis. I guess the eye is first drawn to the sheer number of people. Impressive. But that's not the point of this picture to a historian.

If you look in the distance, you can see a white building with a greenish-copper dome. That's the Old St. Louis Courthouse. For years and years, slaves were auctioned on the steps of that courthouse.

The Old Courthouse used to be called the St. Louis State and Federal Courthouse Back in 1850, two escaped slaves named Dred and Harriett Scott had their petition for freedom overturned in a case there. Montgomery Blair took the case to the US Supreme Court on the Scott's behalf and had Chief Justice Roger Taney throw it out because, as he wrote, the Scotts were "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

I found it rather uplifting that, 158 years later, the man who will most likely be the first black US President was able to stand outside this very same courthouse and gather that crowd. Today, American looked back on one of the darkest moments in its history, and resoundingly told Judge Taney to go to hell!

Photo: Click to enlarge.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

It was during these years (prior to 1978, I believe) that I left my position at the university at Berkeley ...

to return to try to save our small family business which was in a shambles. This was also the point where the political Betty was born and began the process of learning to lead through trial and error.

It was such a time as this. We were in the throes of my very first period of active campaigning. The city of Berkeley was in a heated mayoral race between Gus Newport and incumbent and now former mayor, Shirley Dean. That was in 1978. It's interesting that in this year, 2008, Ms. Dean is again challenging the incumbent mayor, Tom Bates. And, no, I have no horse in this race -- these players are only incidental to the story I want to tell.

Though I no longer lived in South Berkeley by that time, having divorced and remarried, this was Reid "turf" where Mel and I had carved out a bright future back in 1945 -- intended to support and hold as legacy for our 4 children. It was all threatened now -- with Mel's health rapidly deteriorating and the business in a state of financial ruin. The streets of our low income community were alive with negative street life. It had changed drastically since we created our little music store there years before. Our block had become ground zero for the drug trade.

It would be up to me now, and I'd spent the previous two decades living in suburbia raising children and accumulating little experience that would be applicable to what would be needed at this point in our lives.

I'd gone to Carol Sibley, a close friend of my husband, Bill's, and a widely respected community leader who'd almost single-handedly brought the school busing solution to Berkeley during the great battles to desegregate -- and who could be enlisted (I hoped) to help me to locate the sources of political power that might help my impoverished and crime-ridden south end of the city. She brought me together at lunch with her dear friend, Shirley Dean, who not only refused to be of any help -- but who stated firmly that she had "no intention of turning her back on the black leader 'down there' who supported her fully." I read this same leader as the major source of the corruption I was having to deal with and told her so. Nothing could dissuade her. She had his word. I was the new kid on the block with no conceivable power with which to barter.

Everywhere I looked there were Shirley Dean signs posted throughout South Berkeley. It felt hopeless. With so little to lose, I went to the Gus Newport headquarters (we'd never met at that time) and picked up as many signs as I could carry. I posted them everywhere possible on my building, and hoped for some sign of hope. We were in a sea of Dean signage. I then took the remaining signs and walked up and down a 3 block area asking for permission from store owners for window space in which to post them. Everyone readily gave permission. But the next day when I drove to work past those same shops -- every sign had been removed and replaced by Dean's posters. It felt hopeless.

A few weeks before election day I purchased large rolls of newsprint, a gaggle of wide-tipped felt pens and duplicated my sample ballot in bright red and blue ink. I filled my 8' plate glass display windows with my huge homemade ballot -- prominently posted my signature at the bottom -- with each candidate as well as each initiative checked. I purposely left a couple of initiatives in doubt (with question marks) to assure anyone interested that I really didn't have all the answers but was going with my best opinions in each case. I did not pretend to be telling anyone how to vote; but was being completely public with my own intentions. It was my hope that other merchants might do the same so that we might -- together -- raise political awareness on the street. On my counter I posted a legal-sized sheet that explained my conclusions for anyone to see and take away. I registered voters and took the time for friendly debates. It was a wonderful experiment in democracy.

If my intention was to end up in the Fortune 500, this surely wouldn't be the means by which it was achieved. Operating a little record shop on Sacramento Street in South Berkeley would surely not get me there. I needed another reason for braving the often frightening environment in which I found myself. I was perfectly willing to settle for social change as a reason to open the door each day. As long as the little shop paid its expenses and a couple of small salaries, I could feel successful. Being what I wanted to see in the world turned out to be the motivation needed to get through some pretty tough times. Setting short-term achievable goals guaranteed enough satisfaction to keep spirits high and the customer base growing. In time I published a newsletter that went out to 20,000 faithful Reid's customers from all corners of the country and abroad. Eventually I gave it up because I could no longer afford the cost of 3rd class postage or the hard job of writing, stamping, bundling, and carting all those bags to the Post Office for delivery.

It was also amazing! In the days that preceded the Newport/Dean campaign, I watched in awe as people drove up in their cars and parked while they marked their sample ballots and moved on. Even the young street guys sat on the curb and made notes. In time candidates for city offices began to stop by to chat and to seek endorsements. It was the most astounding thing I'd ever experienced. Does one become a civic (political) leader by self-declaration? Apparently so. Who on earth would ever have guessed such a thing even possible?

(Do you suppose I'd become a community organizer? The term would have meant nothing to me at the time.)

Over the next few years it was really fun to see the neighbor's begin to stop by prior to my ballot posting to stick their heads in the front door to ask "... how we gonna vote this year, Miss Betty?"

Do you suppose that's the way it happened over the cracker barrels at the Grange long ago?

I've missed that hands-on involvement over the years since turning the business over to David. Operating Reid's Records as "proprietor" was so much more than it seemed. I got to really love
the give and take with customers and the sense of power over my declared "500 Feet." It led to a continuing life of political involvement since that time, and with a quiet sense of how easy it all is, if you factor in the human touch.

Postscript: Gus Newport was elected mayor that year, and four years later we served together as Northern California co-chairs of the first Jesse Jackson campaign for the presidency.

And -- Reid's Records still exists (even as "records" disappeared along the way) after 63 years and counting -- still serving its community with youngest son, David, now at the helm. Ours is probably the oldest continuing small black music store in the country -- now specializing in church supplies as well as the best in black gospel music. We just had a face-lift after far too long (new awnings and paint job). The community has undergone great changes and most of the old-timers have moved on. If you live in the Bay Area do stop in for old times sake, and give David a chance to continue to serve in the old tradition that we all enjoyed for lo those many turbulent years. Had we only have known what lay ahead, and that we may have played a tiny role in the social progress now evident in the nation. I believe that we did just that, though it involved a lot of blind faith in what was then an unknown and murky future.

Photo: The group photo was taken of noted gospel singer, Vanessa Bell Armstrong and her entourage, at the height of her career. Reid's Records became the place where many of the most noted black performers stopped by, including Aretha Franklin, Shirley Caesar, Patti Austin, etc., over the years.

Lower photo: Yes, that's a young Janet Jackson who stopped by to sign albums for our customers.