Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Ready to move in. See the cat? She came with the house.
Above This Wall
c 2008 B. Greene
Chapter 3-Some New Neighbors
VISTAs Larry Schaaf and David Soffa were both photographers. They also had construction experience and plenty of chutzpah. We envisioned a community media center that would publicize the work of VISTA in the entire Southwest region. I would write copy for brochures, flyers, announcements, press releases, and articles needed by any political action group or organization looking to improve the lives of poor people in the Third Ward. By August, all formal orientation ended. We needed to find permanent housing in our new community. How we were going to rent a space, purchase or rent desks, chairs, typewriters, copy machines, ink, copy paper, press type, graphics, and postage was mystifying. To that dilemma add funding, equipping, and building a working darkroom; our task was formidable. Houston’s Third Ward had some built-in advantages. This section didn’t have as many shotgun shacks as the Fourth Ward, and it fortunately didn’t have the murder rate of the Fifth Ward, with its infamous Lyons Avenue. 24 hours without a murder in Houston always made the headlines.
We each received a check for $90.00 every two weeks, making our joint income $540. a month. With the right place, we could afford as much as $100.00 a month rent and still have over $400. for utilities, phone, food, personal necessities, and entertainment. If the project contributed two government cars for the three of us, we just might be able to pull this off. We looked at a few small apartments near some local housing projects but privacy was going to be an issue if we chose a place too small. Larry was still seeing Deirde, who’d been assigned to a permanent project in Austin, and David and I had no intention of sharing a room, so the search continued. Having a pair of roommates and a permanent place to live was going to be great. It was safer, too, especially if we were going to have office equipment, cameras, and dark room supplies. But how could we find a three-bedroom house or apartment big enough to do the work we envisioned for a rent that would allow us to eat, have a telephone, and pay an electric bill that would power an office and darkroom? On the first Saturday of our complete autonomy, we chanced to see an ad in the Houston Chronicle that touted a two bedroom plus home for $100. a month. Given the address, it was ideally located in the Third Ward, but what must it look like? How about a decaying mini-plantation? Perhaps Tara, after General Sherman’s March to the Sea.
When we first saw the house, I didn’t want to get out of the car. I guess it was my incredulity that anyone would be brazen enough to actually charge money to live in this structure that led me on a brief inspection of the outside. When was this house last painted? The 1920s? 30s? Certainly not in my lifetime. Larry commented on the rotting front steps and then jumped up on the porch and leaned against one of the four front columns. It toppled over. We couldn’t stop laughing. Getting up, Larry still tried to convince us of the possibilities.
“These steps would be easy to rebuild. Just a little used lumber and some nails. If we want to mend the loose column, a few stronger nails will take care of that,” he said. “Besides, this sucker has nine rooms. We could even create more rooms with a little sheet rock and a couple of used doors. I think I even know where we might get some at no cost.” By 3 o’clock that afternoon we met the owner, Byron P. Forney. He told us he was born in the house and lived there for a while as a child. He looked to be somewhere between 65 and 70. He resembled John Conley, the former governor of Texas who was also shot while riding in the Dallas motorcade with John Kennedy. He wore a small western hat much like the detective cuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald in the famous photo of his shooting death. Mr. Forney’s surprise at encountering three white Northerners who wanted to pay him money for this house was only matched by our astonishment when we signed the lease.
“I don’t care what y’all do as long as it ain’t immoral or illegal,” he said.
“Now just what do you mean about that illegal part,” David shot back, completely ignoring the word immoral.
“Smoking that marijuana, or whatever it is that y’all do.”
“Oh,” said David with astonishment, “We don’t use none of them drugs, you don’t need to worry about us. We work for the U.S. government.” Byron’s eyebrows twitched. I could see the rusty wheels turning in his head. Politically, he wanted as little contact with the Feds as possible, but he also wanted to rent the place to us. He may have assumed that his childhood home would be better off for this decision, that we would leave it in much better condition than he had. He was right. I thought of Saul Alinsky’s ideas, “the organizer must give a moral appearance (as opposed to behaving morally): All effective action requires the passport of morality.”
We signed the lease and promptly violated it that night. Mr. Forney, hereafter known as Byron P. Fornicate, only came by one other time. In a scene reminiscent of a TV sitcom, Byron chanced to surprise us early one Saturday morning. He wanted to take a look at a broken window because we convinced him that it was dangerous and if someone got cut on a jagged edge of glass he might be liable. We never figured him to arrive at 7 am the next morning. Each of us had a “guest” that night. When I overheard Byron say, “I guess I should look at all the upstairs windows too,” the alarm sounded. Larry charged downstairs and said a meeting was just finishing up and that as soon as it was over he could go upstairs. Within five minutes the three young women, coats in hand and good byes on their lips descended the creaking staircase.
“I really appreciate you guys being open to a 6:30 meeting” Nancy said as they briefly acknowledged our landlord and shuffled out the door and down the street.
“Just what is it y’all do?” Bryon questioned.
“We work with the underprivileged in this neighborhood,” David replied twirling his handlebar moustache. It was clear he wasn’t impressed. As long as he got his hundred dollars by the fifth of the month, Byron left us alone. We then decided that painting, dividing some larger rooms in two with sheet rock and a little re-wiring here and there in no way violated our agreement.
1506 Rosewood; the black cat came with the house
1506 Rosewood became a work in progress. Since we were starting from scratch in every sense of the word, we’d paint the walls and divide the space a few times before we decided on something resembling permanent. We considered any changes we made to the property improvements. Having received a donated supply of surplus paint from NASA, our color choice was limited, but the quantity of paint was not. We had the option of painting a room again and again if the first few colors turned out to be disagreeable. Fortunately, there was plenty of off white if the shades of kaki or federal safety yellow proved too distasteful. For some reason a number of cans of purple and orange paint came in the batch we received. I always wondered what NASA was going to do with those colors.
Early one Saturday evening, with a few friends over for a spaghetti dinner, we targeted the living room for a paint job. We began at 7 o’clock and by 9 it was clear that the shade of light purple surrounding us was a disaster. It looked like someone got sick on grape juice. By 11 o’clock the room was again white and we moved on to what was probably the dining room but would now be our office. The walls were covered with deteriorating wallpaper. I’m sure it had a discernable pattern or design fifty years earlier. Now, the closest thing to a design was a patchwork of water stains, nicotine film and crusty dust. I had never played with a rented wallpaper steamer before, but David seemed to think this was the quickest way (albeit messy) to prepare the walls for a fresh coat of paint. Much to our delight, when the damp, glue saturated, worn out wallpaper reluctantly peeled back, it revealed some genuine treasures along with the inlaid roach excrement. Most notable were the old newspaper pages previous inhabitants used to cover the walls. An occasional advertisement from the 1940s caught my eye. There were even a few Sunday Funny pages from decades gone by. Most of the innards, however, became trash as we would invite other project members to assist and spend all day and most of the night peeling, painting, eating barbeque, and drinking Lone Star beer. The small stereo crackled out the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, lots of Dylan, and a fair amount of country blues. Son House and Lightnin’ Hopkins could motivate me to work far into the night.
We three initial inhabitants of our newly dubbed “Communications Center” had no furniture, very few clothes, and certainly not much in the way of electronics, books, appliances, linen, or kitchenware. With such a small monthly income, it’s fairly easy to get self-righteous about where and how to obtain necessities. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t mention that, initially, some dishes, silverware, and salt and pepper shakers came from some of Houston’s nearby restaurants. We had to prioritize more moral decisions for the first month or so. We all agreed it got out of hand when we took home some linen napkins just to see if we could. By the second month, another paycheck and some initiative helped up furnish our home.
VISTAs in urban centers also had the opportunity to use GSA (General Services Administration) cars. Usually white or light gray, these government cars belonged to a motor pool and were doled out sparingly. They came with a little black notebook in the glove compartment that contained a red and white government credit card for gasoline only. All maintenance was done in the “official” government downtown garage. While bureaucrats drove late model sedans or trucks, the oldest, most mechanically challenged cars were reserved for VISTA. Only one U.S. government agency ranked below VISTA, the U.S. Coast Guard. In Texas, the Coast Guard had a reputation for fueling its cars in gas stations that also sold beer. Their consumption of gas and oil couldn’t conceal the cases of beer that left the service stations with them. They kept trying but usually got caught. By week seven, two identical gray 1963 Dodge Darts, with push button drive, decorated our driveway. On each door, in black letters was inscribed,” GSA, For Official Use Only.” For three 22 year-olds at odds with their government’s foreign policy, having a car with a foreboding federal message and a government credit card was sweet. Two cars for three VISTAs were even sweeter.
With this plate, disregard parking tickets
Having transportation helped us learn more about our neighborhood quickly. Early on we’d tour the Third Ward learning the allies and dead ends. We noted the frequency and condition of community services. We noticed, too, that a wide area about a mile from our house had been cleared for a new freeway. One evening, David announced that he was going for a little ride. He placed a small assortment of tools in the trunk of one of the cars and returned about an hour later with a load of brass fixtures and beautiful glass doorknobs. “This stuff is just sitting in those abandoned and torn down houses,” he rationalized. Larry joined him the next day for another “run.” Within a week, our new home wasn’t lacking a single lighting fixture, doorknob, or electric socket. 1506 Rosewood hadn’t looked so good in years.
My roommates David and Larry were both self-sufficient, worked well together but were total opposites in how they went about being VISTAS. Larry was an intellectual, could be withdrawn, much more rational than emotional, and had a wry sense of humor. He went about each task methodically with strong self-confidence. He knew he could talk the honchos at NASA into donating materials to our project. Businesslike, Larry was right to the point. David appreciated a good story. He’d temporarily dropped out of college and was looking for adventure. Mechanically inclined like Larry, David took his sweet time about things. He loved music and food, so we agreed to designate him the cook. For a small weekly contribution, David would usually plan a menu, shop for the best deals, and spend hours baking, broiling, browning, simmering, or otherwise cooking food. He was a master at stretching out leftovers too. Something that started out, as hamburgers, would return as meatballs for pasta, and then be reborn as Sloppy Joes or some other original incarnation a few days later.
David enjoyed everything about food and was at his best finding the best deals. He never had to twist my arm to accompany him to the Montague Hotel where the Cock ‘N Bull Grill featured a Rib eye Special for about $2.50. Since most of the best beef in Texas was exported, this little extravagance became a bi-weekly occurrence. On one such foray, we stopped at a bakery he’d had his eye on for some time. Curious if they might give us some kind of deal on bread because we worked for a government non-profit, David delivered a carefully thought out speech to the manager. While he was stating his case, I wandered over to a display case and saw a most unusual birthday cake. Waiting to be picked up, the large white frosted cake read “Happy Birthday Billy.” The letters were placed beneath an entire battle scene composed of green plastic soldiers. In front of the invading platoon, complete with Howitzer and Jeeps was a solitary figure holding an American flag in one hand and tossing a hand grenade with the other. On the way home, we couldn’t wait to tell others about the cake. But when we returned with a few skeptical friends, the cake was gone. I’m sure Billy enjoyed his birthday.
Larry might spend evenings reading or working on photographs. He was an outstanding photographer and put in long hours photographing our neighborhood, the people on the project, and anything relating to Texas. I never saw Larry dance; singing came only after beer or wine. By contrast, David sang every night. While he was also a skilled photographer, his guitar playing was even better. David’s evening ritual featured about an hour of playing and singing before he put out the light. About halfway through his evening session, he’d wander out of his room and into mine. Usually wearing only his underwear, he’d treat me to either the latest tune he’d mastered, or something from his vast repertoire of Wisconsin limericks and drinking songs
There once was a man from Racine,
Who invented a sexual machine.
Concave and convex, it fit either sex,
But oh what a bastard to clean…
We soon met some of the neighborhood’s most unforgettable characters.
Mama Faith ran a garage sale. A perpetual garage sale. She never met an object she couldn’t find some use for and obviously saved everything she ever laid her hands on. All we had to do was take a short walk down Rosewood and then turn right for a few blocks, and then make a left. Another two blocks would bring us to Mama Faith’s driveway. A few steps up the short incline would lead to some makeshift tables covered with all manner of items. Clearly visible were watches, lots of costume jewelry, music boxes, and dishware. A closer inspection revealed, political buttons, tie clips, silver rings, partially used candles, and various sample size packets of skin lotion. Beyond the tables was the garage itself. I’m not sure how big it was, but every inch of space inside that place was covered with something someone needed. Items hung off the walls, from the roof, and piled up in the corners. Mama Faith was convinced what you wanted was here; it just might take a while to uncover. On my first trip into the garage I saw a few wooden chairs hanging from the rafters. There were old railroad lanterns and sawhorses. She had a nice assortment of washbasins, antique washboards, small gas heaters, a few beat up power tools, and some very tasty brass fireplace sets. On the floor of the garage were a few flimsy racks with shirts, sweaters, men’s trousers, women’s pants, and blouses. A frayed piece of rope across the back walls held, men’s vests, an odd assortment of suit jackets, and a couple of well used women’s furs. Shoes covered the floor. Men’s dress shoes, wing tips, loafers, and work boots. Women’s flats, heels, and a complete collection of white nurse’s shoes.
David and Larry usually perused the tables first and worked their way to the rear of the garage. On this particular day, David had his arms full of tools, mostly saws and planes, while Larry inspected cameras, books, and a few electrical cords and terminals scattered in boxes underneath the tables. When she saw me take a liking to a wooden chair on the wall, Mama Faith bounded forth and I was confronted with the icon herself. She stood about 5’5’’ but the wig she was sporting today gave her at least another two inches. It was the burnt yellow color of a peroxide job and the hair was not so much piled high as folded across her forehead as a breaking wave. A headband, a darker shade of brown, reinforced it. She spoke as she approached me. “Let me show you something about that chair son,” she barked. I pulled the chair off the nail that held it firmly against the garage wall, placed it squarely on the ground, and came face to face with Mama Faith.
Her angular face was a beautiful deep bronze. Like many Black folks in my neighborhood, I took her to be part Native American. Her skin was not the youthful skin of someone who pampered herself, yet her face was smooth, and moist, and held an enormous mouth filled with gold or ivory colored molars, and a rich, slightly raspy voice. Mama Faith wore a bright red-orange blouse that surrounded her ample bust. Alongside dime sized, fastened gold buttons down the front, were a chain of two-inch safety pins reinforcing each buttonhole. There was much to hold in. Mama Faith’s blouse had twin pockets up front as well. The pocket on her left was stained with a line of white paint and gave the appearance of a one-way sign pointing to her heart. Squinting, she addressed the merits of the chair I had selected.
“You see this piece of wire here?” she asked. “This will hold a chair like this together for many more years.” I did notice what appeared to be a twisted wire coat hanger reinforcing the attachment of the legs to the chair. When I asked the price, Mama Faith’s mouth contorted and she sucked her bottom teeth for a few seconds. “Five dollars,” she announced. I cried out “sold” and took possession of a new chair for my bedroom. I was certain that my new piece of furniture would be strong enough to hold both pairs of pants I owned.
Securing kitchen appliances was going to take more than a neighborhood garage sale. On the ragged edge of downtown Houston sat a stretch of used appliance and furniture stores. David and I set off one morning to see what we could procure. Each of us tossed in ten bucks; thirty dollars for a stove and refrigerator was the extent of the budget. After checking a few used appliance stores we came to the establishment of a local gentleman who would from that day on be referred to as RB. His shop had possibilities. It resembled a barn more than a retail outlet. “Fine Used Furniture and Appliances- We Deliver” read the sign. Spotting an old gas powered Amana refrigerator, David got down on all fours to examine the backside. Pronouncing it fit, he called me over and we marched to the counter near the back of the place. That’s when we met RB. About 55, he was a well-tanned Texan probably of German descent. Thick chocolate eyebrows complimented his slicked back brown hair. RB was all in kaki, save for the white undershirt visible about to his third button. Like Mama Faith, his shirt had twin pockets adorning the front. One was buttoned down and slightly bulging, it’s contents unknown, the other was crammed with a pen, and his glasses protruding from a clipped down brown leather case.
RB’s nose was noteworthy. Not really pointed and just under bulbous, it gave his face a nice slant that was equally complimented by his mouth. A non-existent upper lip folded into well-shaped lower lip. He looked to be grinning. But it was an evil, closed-mouthed grin boiling beneath that tilted head. When he moved forward, his head seemed cocked to the left.
“What can I do for you,” he began.
He eyed us up and down and no doubt correctly judged us to be foreigners: new arrivals to Texas. Students, he no doubt thought, and made the price fifteen dollars. We promptly paid and David then asked about delivery. We agreed that the extra five bucks would be worth it.
“All I need now is your address,” RB replied.
“1506 Rosewood,” we said in unison.
RB looked dumfounded and said, “For a minute I thought you said ROSE WOOD Street.”
“We did,” David replied. A long pause ensued.
“You mean you live in colored town with all those colored boys,” RB shot back.
“We live on Rosewood, 1506 Rosewood,” David reaffirmed. “Can you deliver it before noon tomorrow?” We left. Driving home we didn’t speak right away. About two blocks from home, David turned toward me. Aside from his usual shoulder shrug tic, he’d been clearing his throat for the last five minutes and a subtle grin was forming under his considerable moustache.
“Fifteen bucks was a good price from that Racist Bastard.”
“Sure was,” I replied. “I don’t think he’ll be doing the delivery himself, too bad though, he might like to see what else we’re doin’ in colored town, the Racist Bastard.” The name stuck. The refrigerator arrived the next morning promptly at 10 o’clock in an old stake truck driven by an even older Black man. The three of us helped unload and move it into the kitchen. We tipped the driver, connected the relic to the gas line and waited to see if it would get cold. It was a fine used appliance. I don’t think we ever went back to that particular used appliance shop, but RB took his place in our modest collection of new neighbors.
RB may he RIP
Our neighborhood overflowed with children. A family of at least five kids lived right across the street, and in the summer months, the noise and games lingered long after dark. We could easily walk to nearby grocery stores and restaurants and laundromats. I often walked to some of the corner groceries on warm evenings. I noticed that the KFC restaurants in my neighborhood offered something called a “Soul Bowl.” It was a small container of white rice topped with chicken necks, gizzards and backs. At one dollar, it filled a need. I’ve always been a watermelon fanatic and living in the Third Ward fed my wildest fantasies. Aside from local stores, it was not uncommon for pick-up trucks loaded with watermelons to set up shop on the street corners of my neighborhood. I was in watermelon heaven. When I brought back a large melon one late afternoon I decided it’d be better to cut it on our front porch. The dark green beauty must’ve weighed 20 pounds. As I cut, ate, and generally made a mess, some of the kids in the neighborhood came over. I was overjoyed because this lunker needed to be eaten and I was already getting full.
A few of the VISTAs in the house came outside to join the party. Finally, David came out with his prized Nikon camera and started shooting pictures of the kids. One of the VISTA women just about shit a brick, calling David racist for taking pictures of black kids eating watermelon. I knew where she was coming from but he didn’t have a scintilla of a clue. Voices rose. Frightened, the kids went home. I sat there, lapping up the red juice from my face and tried to mediate this conflict. I thought of the scene in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the protagonist owns his love of sweet potatoes and buys a hot yam on the streets of Harlem. Shoving the coveted food in his mouth, he just about faints from pleasure. Damn, I thought, I just wanted to eat some watermelon. Then I just wanted to share some with the neighbor kids, I had way too much. Then this crap comes up. But I knew, deep inside, that we were going have to talk about this incident. I knew that if we intended to make a difference in anyone’s lives we needed to be sensitive to everything we did there. Fortunately this incident became a springboard to many late night discussions that helped us sort out the contradictions and complexities of racism. We were all grappling with the fact that growing up in a racist country had an impact on those of us who assumed we had no traces of it ourselves. How could it not? I noticed too, that one of the ways we seemed to relieve stress was to imitate the sound, vocabulary, and sub cultures around us. Larry, David, and I often called each other “boy” or swore at one another with Mexican slang and smiles. This behavior could easily be misinterpreted, yet it was understandable and done without harmful intent. I wanted desperately to get to know my neighbors. We needed their trust and we needed compatibility within our own ranks even more. I had a degree in American history, but this was no history class. If we intended to live and work from our new house, we needed to make sure we had something viable to offer. Familiarizing ourselves with our neighbors concerns was crucial, not alienating them essential. I realized that day it wasn’t always about me wanting to help. I realized that the purest intent could have a questionable impact. I sensed that the year was going to be a lot more complicated than I had imagined.
By late summer talk of another exciting new project caught my attention. Some VISTAS from the previous year were planning to inaugurate a free university for high school students. Alternative education was just beginning to emerge in the form of “free schools” and “open” universities. These schools offered the classes that students were demanding. They didn’t bother with accreditation, or charging tuition. It was all about people sharing skills and knowledge; learning for the sake of learning. Free of censorship, regulations, and approval from ageing administrators, free universities were emerging everywhere. A recent survey of Houston students revealed that “Rock and Blues Analysis” was one of the most demanded courses. I wanted to teach that class. All I needed was proof of a college degree. I never attended my own graduation ceremony, so I was going to have to have my degree mailed from L.A. I made arrangements to have the document sent by registered mail. Early one afternoon a knock on the door roused me from writing letters. Our mail carrier was at the door and needed a signature on a parcel. He was kind soft-spoken 50ish gentleman who reminded me of the great boxer Archie Moore. Balding slightly, and a bit overweight, Mr. Morgan had coffee-colored skin and a big heart just like Archie Moore. I’d seen him take time to talk to kids or spend an extra minute with an elderly neighbor who lived alone. I noticed that he was holding a mailing tube and just before I completed my signature saw the return address was UCLA.
“You know what this is?” I said.
“It’s my college degree, I just graduated two months ago.”
Mr. Morgan suddenly straightened up. “Wait,” he instructed. Pointing to the end of the porch he directed me to go stand over there.
“Now walk over here very slowly,” he continued. I played along and tried my best to hear to Pomp and Circumstance ringing in the humid air. Mr. Morgan placed the tube in my hand and offered sincere congratulations. His firm handshake and familiar smile could have been the Dean of the College of Letters and Science or even my father’s. I thanked him and returned to my desk. We held a new respect for one another after that. Thinking back, I regret not giving my dad the opportunity to see me graduate college. The Great Depression interrupted his years at NYU. Wasn’t I being sensitive? I’d had opportunities he hadn’t. Still, after a year of CIA agents in the classroom, People’s Park, the all UC campus strike, occupied administration buildings, tear gas and the like, I wanted little to do with formal recognition from the big U. I guess I blew that and should have done it for him. One thing remains clear, having my own ceremony, officiated by someone proud to know me, still brings gratification. That mailing tube is as important to me today as the degree.
By autumn of 1969, the people in that pick-up truck ride I took my first week in Houston had become my new best friends. Larry was my roommate and Terry and Kim my closest women friends. Terry moved to an unincorporated area outside Houston with Michelle, another VISTA originally from Texas. They shared an old trailer and worked mostly on health issues with local women. Terry and Michele would come into Houston about once a month to catch up on news around the project and share dinner and stories. Kim’s story took a different turn. She and a few other VISTAs had been severely harassed by Houston cops for their presence in a black community. We all received our share of unwelcome comments from police who were uncomfortable with our presence in areas that were held segregated. When Kim and her housemates were stopped by Houston’s finest one evening, her time as a VISTA volunteer changed. Riding to a community meeting in a car driven by a Black man was all it took. A heated conversation erupted. When the police announced they’d found marijuana under the front seat, Clarence the driver was handcuffed. Everyone in the car knew the dope was planted. When one of the cops made a remark to Kim about blonde girls riding around with niggers, she soon found herself arrested as well.
VISTAs are not supposed to get arrested. Sometimes it can’t be helped. After a trial, which featured the arresting officers blatantly lying in court, Kim decided that VISTA was not where she could best serve people. In the end, a small fine ended the episode. But it was clear that White folks, especially women, would be constant targets for the police. It was understood that to be a woman in VISTA was infinitely more difficult. It was apparent, too, that the official policy of the Houston Police Department was concerned more with maintaining the status quo than any sense of honesty or equity. Although we were becoming more than close friends, Kim felt she needed to get out of Texas for a while. I think it’s fair to say that she was stunned by the injustice of her “trial.” I’m not sure her college experience at Smith or a year abroad in England had prepared her for the reality of Houston’s streets. Those of us from more working class backgrounds understood that evidence could be planted. We knew too that certain vehicles were under scrutiny for burned out license plate lights or the age, ethnicity, or gender of their occupants. An offer to move in with a friend in Chicago helped her decide. But our future together did not end in that courtroom. We shared a love of books, horses, and music. She, the platinum blonde girl who looked more like the Californian, and I, the dark haired Semitic looking kid who looked more like the New Yorker, knew we’d see each other again. Our relationship, for the moment, would be long
Kim's Texas Blues