Monday, October 11, 2010
In Houston, the training took a new form. Aside from guest speakers about socio-economic issues, documentary films, and discussions on the historical underpinnings of poverty, many of the VISTAS currently living and working in Houston joined the mix. Housing would also change. After a weekend in a motel, we found ourselves scattered in numbered sections of the city known as wards. A few independent types went to smaller, semi-rural communities on the periphery of greater Houston. The majority occupied wards 1 through 6. Some of these inner city communities had reputations that screamed, “Go away.” We knew all about the 5th Ward and the infamous intersection of Lyons Avenue and Jensen. Stories of violent encounters with broken people surfaced throughout the final week of training. People had been shot dead for withholding spare change. Addicts strung out on everything from heroin to Robitussin cough medicine thought nothing of taking your life and then your shoes. Nicknamed “Blood Alley,” the 5th Ward’s moniker was well deserved. Bluesman Ligtnin’ Hopkins once said, “You go there green and that’s the last time you be seen.” But it was his disciple, home grown blues singer Juke Boy Bonner, who said it all in an album entitled “Life Gave Me a Dirty Deal.” Bonner’s untimely death at 46 underscored the validity of his message. In a tune he called Stay off Lyons Avenue, Bonner sang:
If you ever go down to Houston,
And you land there new,
You better stay off Lyons Avenue
(Spoken) If you walk Houston’s streets,
You’ve got to be real wise,
Stay off Lyons Avenue
And don’t go around Jensen nowhere,
Because you’ll be livin’ on luck and a prayer,
(Spoken) Lyons Avenue, right off Jensen, It ain’t hard to find,
You’ll find cats almost dyin’
You know how it is, boy; you know how it is.
Very few VISTAS made the 5th Ward their home. It rivaled parts of Detroit for the murder capital of the U.S.A. More worked in the 4th Ward and the 6th ward. The 6th Ward was smaller with a similar run-down appearance and familiar collection of urban desperados. But the 4th Ward contained one truly remarkable characteristic. It was an inner city poverty pocket nestled in the shadows of downtown corporate logos. The orange Gulf Oil sign often replaced the moon at night. My favorite image, however, was a huge royal blue, glowing AMERICA, the only part visible from a larger sign that read Hotel America. The enormous neon letters hovered over the rows of shotgun houses and illuminated all the noise, chaos, danger, and deprivation present beneath it. The 3rd Ward, Houston’s unofficial prostitution capital, became my new home. This section, aside from dicey areas and increasing blight, also contained some of the most important institutions in the African-American community. In the 1950s, with a growing black middle-class and white flight to the suburbs, the 3rd Ward expanded. It was home to many large black churches, the University of Houston, and Texas Southern University, once called Houston Junior College for Negroes. The 3rd Ward had it all, from deteriorating shacks to brick duplexes and triplexes once reserved for white families. It boasted Dowling Avenue too. Dowling, the heart of the 3rd Ward, was never dormant. It was vividly alive with its barbershops, bars, beauty parlors and barbeque restaurants. Dowling had juke joints, all manner of storefront churches, Churches’ Fried Chicken, and plenty of mom and pop corner stores. Kids ran errands for pimps at all hours. On unbearably humid afternoons air-conditioned Cadillac limos carried preachers in and out of church offices.
After morning training sessions, we worked on an up-coming election for Model Cities’ representatives from our new communities. Model Cities, an early urban renewal effort that stressed local representation to enhance federal delivery of social services, never quite lived up to its potential. The program attempted to engage existing community leaders and give them some decision-making power, a radical idea at the time. Ultimately, it morphed into the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Nixon administration.
My home for the next few weeks was with the family of a 45 year old black woman introduced to me as Mrs. Miller. In this small house on Drew Street, lived Mrs. Miller and her three younger children, two daughters aged 7 and 9 and the baby, her son Randolf, age 5. That was the “official” version of the family, but in recent weeks her oldest daughter Florence, 19, Florence’s boyfriend, Ralph, and their newborn daughter also shared the house. Within the week, I learned that there were six more children who were no longer living with her. She didn’t say where they were, and I didn’t ask. Mrs. Miller had been separated from her husband for seven years. It was a small two-bedroom home. At first I wondered why Mrs. Miller agreed to take on another person in her household. Then I realized that in Houston, as in all of Texas at that time, food stamps didn’t exist, only surplus food commodities. Giving surplus food to people ranked higher on the ethics scale than letting them do their own shopping. The Draconian, paternalistic welfare system felt the need to control what people were eating and certainly didn’t trust the poor to purchase food. The $20.00 a week for putting up a VISTA Volunteer was an opportunity to supplement the family’s meager welfare income. But that wasn’t the only reason. Mrs. Miller turned out to be an empathetic, politically aware observer of her community. She knew VISTA offered some attempt at improvement. Aside from welcoming me into her home, Mrs. Miller became a valuable resource.
Life with the Miller family offered more insights. The Houston Council on Human Relations, our sponsoring agency, provided a thin twin sized mattress that Mrs. Miller placed on the floor in the tiny living room. I could roll it up and but it behind a small well used sofa during the day and then roll it out when I was ready to retire. I did not need a key because the door to the house was seldom locked or someone was always home. I noticed that in one bedroom, the three young children slept horizontally across a small child’s bed. Florence often slept with Mrs. Miller in the larger bedroom, and Ralph crashed wherever-- on the couch, on the floor of the kid’s room, in the kid’s bed if he got there first. After my second evening, a visitor greeted me early the next morning, and every morning thereafter. Randolf, the five year old, would unabashedly crawl under my blanket and curl up beside me. He knew that I’d be leaving before 8 o’clock each morning and he wasn’t going to let that little mattress go unused. I was torn because I certainly didn’t want Mrs. Miller to think I wasn’t mindful of rolling up my bed and stashing it behind the sofa. Being a neat, quiet, independent houseguest was my goal. She, however, knew the drill. She’d scold Randolf about keeping away from the “guest” bed but never followed through.
Randolf and I became fast friends. I regret that I didn’t have more time to spend with him but getting up and over to South Main Street in time for the morning meetings required that I leave before the Miller household was stirring. I had to walk a couple of miles or catch a bus part way to make it on time. We did, however, spend some quality time many mornings before I left and he resumed sleeping. Being the youngest of the children, save the granddaughter, Randolf often took the brunt of everyone’s frustration. Our time together was always quiet and tender. Randolf became fascinated with the hair on my arms, stroking and pulling at it unconsciously everyday. One day he surprised me by saying, “one day, I’ma have good hair.” I knew the use of the term “good hair” in the black community, but I never expected to hear it from a 5 year old. Randolf taught me how early pronounced racial attitudes appear in children. When I think of Randolf now I see a curious, smiling child, wearing shorts with no shoes on, very close-cropped hair, tugging on my arm. I hear Mrs. Miller in the evenings trying to keep him inside the stuffy house because he has just had a bath or it’s close to his bedtime. “Randolf…RANDOLF!! Get away from that door boy! She screeched this every evening about 25 times. Randolf would toy with the fragile screen door, dart in and out wearing nothing but a pair of white underpants, until she’d smack him on the butt and he’d tearfully retreat to share his bed with his sisters.
Dinnertime with Mrs. Miller and family proved revealing. I’m sure any meat we got came from my paltry “rent” for the week. She always offered me meals with the family. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Miller was a fine cook but it’s the magic she worked with what she had that stands out most. Like many Texans, the family liked their food spicy and hot sauce accompanied every meal. Once while helping her in the kitchen, I watched as she opened a large silver can of government surplus green beans. Then she added black pepper and hot sauce. She added lots of black pepper and hot sauce. When she noticed my eyes widen, Mrs. Miller drew near and whispered in my ear, “if I make this government food hot enough, the kids will eat it.” Aside from beans, the Miller’s received bags of rolled oats, powered milk, and flour, along with large tins of peanut butter and boxes of raisins and peanuts. The surplus commodity program never included meat. Sometimes there were large bricks of cheddar cheese. Mrs. Miller often told me that I should be sure to use up the cheese. She explained that the kids are “tired of it,” so just use it up, “I got it for you.”
Our task during this phase of the training was to root out local community leaders who might run for the position of representative on a Model Cities committee. We had about 10 days to work in our neighborhoods before the election. It was not a municipal election but rather a vote taken at a community meeting. Model Cities was never a popular project for VISTA trainees. It seemed more like a diversion until the VISTA supervisors could get a better feel for our ability to succeed in Houston. Nevertheless, we helped get out the word, advertise community meetings and took note of local needs and issues. On occasion, Ralph would walk through the neighborhood with me. I always felt safer when he went with me because he was powerfully built and I’d never get hassled. Once we encountered some of his friends and Ralph and I took two of them on in a friendly half court basketball game. The steel chain net rattled around regularly as we all tried our best to imitate our full court heroes. One particular friend of Ralph’s stands out because of the way he spoke. I have never heard anyone use the word motherfucker with the frequency that Jerry did. I was incredulous. For a few minutes, I lost the ability to sink my 20-foot jump shot. As the game progressed Jerry began to scuffle with one of the other guys. On every disputed call, he’d mutter something about getting no respect. His sense of powerlessness was about to burst through his skin. Jerry’s anger was a by-product of the hopelessness he felt. Everything he did, from shooting a basketball to tossing an empty soda can was laced with hostility. Walking home an hour later Ralph and Jerry talked about job possibilities. Jerry mentioned that he’d never had a job for more than three months. Ralph revealed that they both needed to go elsewhere, that there was nothing worthwhile for them in Houston.
The following week, Ralph was gone. Florence told me “he went out west,” to try and find a better job and provide for his new family. She was certain that in a month or so, he’d send her the money to join him and that they’d be married by the time she returned to visit her mother. I was wishing Ralph was around when one morning shortly after he left I awoke to find Mrs. Miller agitated about something. She’d received a phone call that a man was walking around the neighborhood carrying a shotgun. I quickly got dressed and we both made a cursory look around the street. All quiet. What I was going to do about it, I’ll never know. They were my family, though, and for at least another week I was the man of the house, so I made an attempt to act like one. Much relief followed when nothing turned up. Mrs. Miller now felt comfortable about asking me more personal questions. I told her about my family, the loss of my mother three years earlier, and how my dad was now living alone.
“You got a girlfriend?” she asked.
“Not really,” I answered. “I had one back in California, but she’s a few years younger and still in school.
“What make you want to come here?” She continued.
“I wanted to see another part of the country. I’ve had enough school for awhile,” I told her. “I thought maybe I could help out on this program.”
Our conversations were always tricky. I never wanted to appear shocked or angry about what I saw either in her home or community. I was beginning to realize that any significant change or insight spurred by my presence was a two way street.
When my small allowance ran out, I walked as much as possible and saved a few dollars for any emergency that might arise. One night I remained after the last training session was over and went to a movie with a small group of my colleagues. They all lived on or near bus lines and were not concerned about getting home late at night. I could only get within a half-mile or so of my neighborhood and was concerned about some mean streets that I had to traverse to get home. There simply were no white people out on the streets in these areas after dark. I was an opportunity waiting to happen and had, in fact, been asked about paying a “protection fee” a few days before. When the bus driver let me off at what he determined to be the intersection closest to where I needed to be, I walked half a block to well-lit gas station. I remember noticing that the 3rd Ward contained various transportation services. Not really taxicabs, these were independently operated drivers who specialized in short- haul jobs. Taking people to the supermarket or the Laundromat, or a doctor’s office for a nominal fee. The station had a phone booth with a functional phonebook. There it was, the one I remembered seeing: ABC Transportation Service. I called and in about 10 minutes a car appeared. Surprised to find a white boy calling from a phone booth in this part of town, the driver was doubly curious when I gave him the address of my destination. I was so happy that the ride only cost a couple of dollars that I gave him my last dollar as a tip.
“Is this where you want to go? “
“Yes, this is fine, it’s that house in back there.”
“All Right, that’ll be two dollars.”
“OK, yeah, that’s it, that’s where I live, thanks, here you go.”
I sensed the driver’s brain must have been screaming, “ what the hell you doin’ living here? That’s some bullshit, is there a hooker here I don’t know about? “
So much left between the lines that night, but I was home safely and had only to nudge Randolf to the side to reclaim my spot.
The weekend before our final training session turned out to be extremely hot. With three digit temperatures and humidity well over 90, one of the training supervisors, Marnie, invited 10 of us to spend a Friday afternoon at the motel where she was staying. She was returning to Austin the following week and we’d be cut loose to fend for ourselves in our new communities. We enjoyed the chance to go for a swim and then all crowded into her air-conditioned room to eat pizza and watch a movie on TV.
“I’ll drive you guys back to your families,” Marnie said, so we were in no rush to get going. By 10 o’clock that evening, with about eight of us still there, Marnie changed her mind.
“I guess you guys can stay over night, and I’ll take you back in the morning,” she said. Some people had coupled up and when Marnie noticed two trainees making out on the bed, she joined a group of three of us in a spirited conversation on the floor. With the air-conditioning humming along, we talked long into the night. By early morning, Marnie was asking me about my poetry and I was desperately trying to recite from memory. I must have done a fairly good job because hearts pounded, hands touched and breathing changed. We curled up on the floor together and by first light she whispered in my ear.
“Stay here, go back to sleep. Not everyone will fit in the car. I’m going to run some of the guys back to their homes. See you in a bit.”
In cool silence, I climbed up to the bed and fell into a deep sleep. When I awoke, Marnie had crawled in with me. Our lovemaking was like a slow blues. It was everything missing from my life at the moment: serenity, satiating, safe. I didn’t see my “family” until Wednesday of that week, but Mrs. Miller was cool.
“Where you been, Bruce? I was kinda worried. You been outa town?”
“Yeah, sorry I didn’t get a chance to call. I had to go to some meetings downtown and they just put us up at a motel.”
We both knew that by the end of that week I’d be moving out on my own. I made an effort to be around the rest of the week and that turned out to be time well spent because I met two more locals who contributed mightily to my continuing education in the 3rd Ward.
While at the motel with Marnie, I had the first chance in six weeks to call home. It was good to hear my father’s voice and allay some of his fears about where I’d been and what I’d seen. He asked what it was like being in Houston when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. I explained that the entire Houston VISTA project was hustled off to Freeport, a resort town near Galveston on the Gulf Coast. We were bussed there for the day so we would not get involved in any planned demonstrations that afternoon. There were grave concerns that VISTAS would be involved in protests questioning federal spending on the space program at the expense of recent cuts in social programs. While the giant step for mankind was taken on the moon, we were mired in beach sand ducking fierce winds and awaiting an official hurricane alert. Most poor people I knew believed that there was no moon landing. They spoke convincingly that the entire thing was staged in the Arizona landscape. These beliefs were mostly rooted in religion. If God wanted people on the moon he would have put them there. Nevertheless, I’d bet it would be very easy to find folks today who still harbor this belief. I went into many homes that year that had two things in common. Most contained cloth hangings of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, and very few, if any in the household believed the U.S. ever landed a man on the moon. The demonstrations made local headlines but no VISTAS were arrested that weekend.
My time with Marnie gave me the chance to call my close friends Kenny and Carol. I was deeply concerned about them and their daughter Alex. Born with severe brain damage just a few months earlier, Alex was fighting for her life and I longed to spend more time with them. Turns out they were anxious about what had become of me. After some minutes of catching up, Kenny asked me about my living conditions.
“I guess it’s really bad where you are,” he said. “Are the conditions worse than you expected?”
How could I answer that? I was sitting in bed with one of the trainers, calling from air-conditioned comfort. I think I mumbled something about being able to answer that better next week. Their lives were fairly on hold as Alex was clinging to life. I knew that I’d probably have a draft board appearance to make within the next six months, so anything I could do to help would have to wait.
My conversation with Kenny and Carol lingered in the back of my mind for days. Meeting Solomon Scott one evening while sitting on the stoop at Mrs. Miller’s house jolted me back to my own reality. Solomon, a local wino, had fine-tuned his alcoholism to perfection. His drug of choice was Thunderbird and when he finished each small bag-wrapped bottle he’d shout, “there goes another dead bird.” Between bottles, Solomon was careful to re-hydrate. Our conversations were always interrupted by his requests for water. One evening we had a fairly serious conversation about current issues. From the war in Vietnam to the local economy, we touched on everything. Solomon was fascinated that I had just completed a college degree, and sometimes waxed philosophical about a few poor choices and his lost opportunities. He was articulate and obviously intelligent. Yet, Solomon Scott had given up; he had soured on living a life that he believed was pre-determined to culminate in his own ruin. He was now speeding up the process.
Solomon liked to joke with me and he really got me good when he kept asking me one evening, “What am I?” I avoided the obvious but he was persistent. Finally he announced, “I’m a homicidal maniac, yup, that’s right that’s what I am, a homicidal maniac.” Later in the evening, after a couple more “dead birds,” Solomon decided he was really Picasso. I tried to pursue his reasoning but that proved futile. All attempts at further conversation degenerated into Solomon declaring that he was the best bullshit artist in town. If he was, he certainly was the most thought-provoking one I ever met. Nevertheless, a growing awareness of my own naiveté made me wonder if I ought to watch my back a good deal more after that night.
On my last Sunday afternoon with the Miller family I walk over to Dowling Avenue, the main drag of the 3rd Ward. My fellow VISTA Larry is staying with a woman there in a small shotgun shack right off the main drag. I’m mindful that Dowling is rife with prostitutes. At dusk, women in hot pants and sheer black stockings ply their trade all along the avenue. They wear spike heels. They are blurs of chartreuse and pink. Most are in their twenties but a few seem older, harder, more aggressive. When Larry and I walk by they greet us with the same pitch reserved for motorists.
“Hey Tiga,” they shout. “Got twenty bucks, we can have a real good time for twenty bucks. Come on Tiga.”
One looks longingly at me and I turn away. They often scare me. But in a different way. I sense there must be more to them than sexual vessels or materialistic airheads. I know their pimps are nearby and I can see the mosquito bite scars all over their legs. Still they fascinate me; they attract and repulse at the same time. I’m sad, protective, fearful, and angry. Most of all, I just want to talk to them.
I find Larry at home and his “landlady” Rosie cooking collard greens. Rosie is at least 75 and might be older. Her voice crackles like the pot on the stove. She wears only a gray nightgown and some worn out slippers, but her eyes light up when she speaks. Rosie adores her “Larry boy.” She treats him like a son and is delighted that a young man who gives her twenty dollars a week is nearby, if only for a few weeks. Rosie’s home is tiny and the classic shotgun shack.
The greens have probably been cooking all day, but Rosie is now ready to taste them.
“Mmmm, these some good greens,” she says smiling her toothless smile and working her gums in circles. “Yeah boys, these some gooood ‘ol greens.”
I realize that Larry and Rosie will soon part. I fear for her in this vulnerable spot. But I also know Rosie is wise, and has a strong will. It is the unrelenting heat, the lack of services, and the encroaching violence of the neighborhood that concerns me most. That night I write a poem.
I’ve seen your streets collide into pools of forgotten humanity,
Standing, scraping, as I climbed hills that crumbled
I wanted to find you, touch you, have you tell me
What kind of life must be peeled off a wooden window
To last even an instant in this tightly woven fiber of destruction
That you feed, because it feeds you.
Still I cannot help singing,
Not your song; sometimes not even mine,
Yet it is not fear that now tells me I must still be alone,
To watch clouds move.
On the last day of my stay with Mrs. Miller she received a special visitor. It was a Sunday, mid morning and the humidity was beginning to rise. I awoke earlier than usual to tidy up my sleeping area and share a final morning with Randolf. I wanted to get in and out of the bathroom before the line formed as well. With one small bathroom shared by a minimum of seven people, I wasn’t taking any chances. There was no shower, only a bathtub for a quick rinse or dip. By the time Mrs. Miller got to the bathroom, I was ready to leave. But I waited. She was in an unusual mood. Her large smile radiated pure joy. Later, I hear her singing gospel songs behind the closed bathroom door.
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.
Her voice was sweet and soulful. Her unexpected happiness paints my face with a tearful smile. When she emerged from the bathroom she looks ready to walk the red carpet. Maybe it’s the blue satin dress, or the string of pearls hugging her neck. Shortly afterward, there was a knock on the front door and an older Black woman, equally well dressed entered the house. Brief introductions followed. I moved to a nearby chair while Mrs. Miller sat on the tiny sofa next to her guest. Suddenly, Mrs. Miller dropped to her knees and the woman, who turned out to be a spiritual advisor was praying over her. I averted my eyes. Some whispering followed and then the two prayed in silence. I remained nonchalant. Before she left, the Rev. Hawkins asked me some questions about my work with VISTA. She took my hand and looked me square in the eye.
“He has a kind and intelligent face, “ she told Mrs. Miller. She wished me luck. That moment touched something spiritual in me. Not religious, but deeply moving nonetheless. My baptism into the Houston ghetto was complete. I welcomed anything that would help me survive.
By the last week of training the heat became oppressive. The temperatures rose over 100 degrees and remained well into the 90s in the evening. To counteract the constant perspiring, I began to put salt in my beer, a Texas custom. Sleep arrived reluctantly at two or three a.m. I fantasized daily about a cool shower. Even my “baths” were to no avail. If I bathed at 7:00, changed clothes by 7:15, by 7:30 I’d the constant sweating would begin anew. It mattered little if those times were am or pm. Walking to South Main Street would mean a sweat-soaked shirt for the day, so I decided to take a bus in early and find a small air-conditioned café to hang out in until the morning meeting. The 42 Holman pulled up to the stop half a mile from my home and I boarded, sitting near the front. Only a handful of people occupied the bus. Two more boarded at the stop after mine. Waiting at the next stop was an elderly black woman carrying a package and holding a cane. As she boarded the bus, her knees buckled and she dropped onto the steps. I looked up and noticed the driver remained still and looking forward. Nobody moved. This woman, in her 70s, grimaced and made a futile attempt to rise. Time stopped. When it was painfully clear that nobody planned to move, I ran to her. I helped her to her feet, escorted her to a nearby seat, gathered up the package and the cane, and asked her if she was OK. A raspy “Thank You” dribbled out of her mouth, breaking the ringing silence. She smiled as I returned to my seat. One block later the driver reached over his shoulder and handed me a small black and white card. He never looked at my face. I saw only the massive starched gray back of his uniform shirt and the stubble of his auburn flattop. ACCIDENT REPORT read the 5X8 card. I had only to answer a few simple questions about time and place as the “witness.” I kept wondering what would have happened if I weren’t on that bus? Did the drivers always remain seated?
After the morning session, one of the last, I was still upset. My anger crystallized as I filled out the report and bummed up a stamp to get it into the afternoon mail. I attached a sheet with my questions about why the driver never moved and what kind of accountability existed? I spoke briefly with Miles Simmons, one of the VISTA supervisors and a longtime resident of Houston about the incident. He told me not to obsess about my wording of the report form. He reminded me I would probably never get a response and that in all likelihood the “incident” was over. “Welcome to Houston,” Miles added. I sulked the rest of the day. No one ever called or contacted me about my accident report.
It was 102 degrees outside, but that wasn't what was bothering me