Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Roaches and Seeds
Free time was an unknown. Most of us had been students all our lives. Equally unfamiliar was the city of Houston. But time management and strong motivation, make an effective VISTA. Although we numbered 50, including lawyers and supervisors, aside from infrequent post-training meetings, many of us didn’t see each other all that much. The daily demands of our individual projects, the geography, and inconsistent transportation kept us out of touch. Then came the Project House. The former convent, with amenities like large dining and laundry rooms, showers, and well-equipped kitchen served as hostel and meetinghouse. Get-togethers increased. Still, it was not uncommon to hear about what others were up to by word of mouth. Arnie Reichler became the subject of many conversations and rumors.
Arnie, a VISTA originally from Queens, New York, kept us thinking and laughing. Recognizable instantly by his rapid speech and thick eyeglasses, Arnie was one of the only male VISTAs who wore no facial hair. His daily uniform consisted of faded blue jeans held up by a worn, floppy leather belt, white tee shirt, about one size too small, and thick black oxfords. His thinning hair swirled back over his broad forehead in one assertive swoop. Soft, vanilla skin gave way to a farmer’s tan line that took the appearance of a rose-colored bib around his neck. Arnie viewed the world leaning forward, looking through tortoise shell horn rims edging down the bridge of his nose. It’s fair to say that his conception of Houston was much like Jacqueline Kennedy’s more famous first impression: “four square blocks of Manhattan set on a plain.” A poet and writer, no subject eluded Arnie. Each day supplied him with an unending string of topics and images. Even though he wrote constantly, Arnie had set upon an ambitious project changing the content of Houston’s libraries. Like many hospitals and schools, one particular library was named after Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. The irony of this library serving mostly Black and Latino communities was not lost on Arne. He set out to fill the shelves with books relevant to those patrons. He was appalled at the lack of material about the lives of those who the library intended to serve. To stock the shelves with materials on Cesar Chavez, or Dolores Huerta, primary source documents of American History, the writings of Martin Luther King and the works of Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston was his goal. It was an ideal project because it could be invisibly done.
Arnie was no more histrionic than the New Yorkers in my family, but a New Yorker in Texas is a different animal. Over-zealous about everything he did, Arnie was constantly in motion, constantly rattling off ideas, lines he’d written, his current ailments, or the latest authentic restaurant he’d discovered. Like me, he could be funny, intense, emotional, and neurotic. I began a series of bi-weekly visits to Arnie’s North side home because I wanted to nurture his friendship. He’d studied the fine points of the Selective Service law, and being a fellow draft resister, was always evolving strategies for communicating with his draft board. I thought I might also be useful as a bibliography source for his library project. My undergraduate history thesis looked at the individual and social realities of Black poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar and Claude McKay, and I was fresh from other history and literature courses with experts like professors Gary Nash and Ron Takaki. Throughout these years, books by Black writers previously unavailable were being reissued constantly. VISTA was providing book kits for various projects and I reasoned if enough of us received the 25 or so paperbacks we requested, we could donate many copies to local libraries. I’d asked for titles about the blues, social history, current affairs, and various ethnic studies volumes. Mild shock ensued when we actually received copies of Soul On Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.
I often encouraged Arnie to submit his poetry to the The Issue and he’d usually give me an on the spot reading, of his latest piece. A prolific poet. I saw him as a budding Allen Ginsburg or perhaps a younger version of Laurence Ferlenghetti. He’d tackle any topic with irreverence and enthusiasm. Fortunately, we were able to publish his work from time to time. He and I even organized a series of poetry readings at the Project House where VISTAs, encouraged to either read their own work or something else they liked, gathered to sip cheap wine while even cheaper candles burned. But curiosity also motivated my visits with Arnie because he enjoyed certain notoriety on the project with regard to his pest control methods. My housemates and supervisors continually encouraged me to witness this first hand.
Arnie’s battles with cockroaches in his apartment were legendary. While most of us simply made peace with them, usually in the form of jokes or planned ignoring, Arnie set out to exterminate every last one. To be unconcerned about the constant presence of these 2-inch flying pests was a badge we wore proudly. I’d find them lurking in piles of dirty dishes in the sink or inside the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. They ambushed the unsuspecting in dirty clothes hampers or cracks in the wall.
“Hey did you see the size of that roach in the kitchen last night? I hear he rides a motorcycle now,” someone would say.
“No I missed that one, but two of his buddies took the car out last night.” That’s how it would go. Where we became accustomed to simply swatting or thumping them off when we awoke, Arne went after each one. He wouldn’t stop until the corpse was flushed away.
Word on the street was that to really appreciate Arnie in action, you had to sit with him over coffee in his kitchen. In the middle of a conversation, if he spotted a roach, Arne would remove his shoe and using the heel as a hammerhead, go after the doomed pest. He took particular pride in whacking Texas cockroaches. “Excuse me,” he’d blurt out in mid-sentence, then slowly rise and became a roach splattering madman. Red faced, sweat dripping, and panting, he’d calmly return to his seat.
“This is the method that works best,” he’d add. “I’ve tried just about everything else.” He wasn’t kidding. Arne’s parents owned a pharmacy and would send him monthly “Care packages.” Aside from his roach fixation, Arne was showing signs of hypochondriasis. His family would send him enough painkillers, bug sprays, stomach upset preparations, shoe insoles, cough medicine, roach traps, chewing gum, toiletries, lotions, first-aid products, and candy bars for the entire project. “Whadda ya need,” would be Arne’s familiar greeting. Carloads of VISTAS would come by for a monthly visit to “Arne’s drugstore.” He believed in sharing the wealth and there was always someone who hadn’t seen the roach terminator in action.
These two are collaborating on something.
For all the entertaining moments Arnie Reichler gave me, I was able to return the favor, unknowingly, a few months before my year ended. One afternoon I received a call from a young woman who was registered in my Rock and Blues Analysis class. She called to say that she had no transportation for the meeting that night and wondered if I knew of anyone she might contact for a ride. I asked her if she could get to downtown Houston and perhaps I could pick her up there and give her a lift. Kim, who was back in Texas, was uneasy about the student.
“How’d she get your number, maybe someone else can give her a ride,” she said. I insisted on following through so we gave the girl a ride. When it was clear she was quite attractive and not particularly pleased that Kim was with me, I made sure that somebody else took her home. What I didn’t know was that Kim had planned a surprise birthday party for me after class that night. Many VISTAS would be there and she needed to arrive with me at exactly 9:30 pm. I asked Arnie if he’d give my “groupie” a ride home and he gladly agreed. But when he didn’t show up later for my party I grew concerned. In fact nobody saw Arnie for three days.
Finally, he surfaced. Hyper as ever, he told me he’d been at the Project House for a few days. It seems that on the way home from my class the “student” was interested in hearing some of his poetry. Rather than drive across town, he took her to the former nunnery because it was right in the neighborhood and an excellent setting for reading poetry. She liked it so well they remained in one of the spare rooms for a few days. According to Arnie, this woman “had a thing for New York Jews.” Arnie was happy to answer all her questions about his ethnicity, his hometown, even his sexual prowess. She had assumed that I fit the bill, but he assured her that was not the case. “I told her you were Jewish, but definitely not from New York. She had some weird ideas, you know how some of these Texas girls are, and somebody needed to set her straight.” Arnie proceeded to go into too much detail about their fun-filled time together. He was particularly fond of the fact that their poetry discussion and the lovemaking that followed were done in an ex-nun’s room under a crucifix. “I kept looking up at that thing,” he told me; “it was a very beautiful experience.” Some new poems followed.
As our Communications Center took hold, so too did our friendships with other VISTAS and our community. Most of the work we did occupied weekdays. Weekends were reserved for unwinding and informal parties. Larry kept his relationship with Deidre, an Austin VISTA, alive by alternating weekends between Houston and Austin. Nancy Hite, a Fourth Ward VISTA, often spent her weekends with David. Just about the time they first connected, we got a call from Nancy one Saturday afternoon.
“What can I bring?”
“Just yourself, and make sure your house mates come with you, we need as many VISTAs from inner city Houston as we can get.”
Nancy was adamant about having a good turnout from the Third, Fifth, and Sixth wards. As the force behind this Fourth Ward open house, she wanted as much support as she could muster. Her little strip of downtown poverty was all set for an influx of direct action. Living in this community composed mostly of decaying shotgun shacks and an occasional church or street corner market, she had a good deal invested in its makeover.
Nancy was a second year VISTA, having endured the political and emotional tornado that was 1968 deep down in the alley of the Fourth Ward. She was tough as scrap iron, having survived a physical assault, numerous verbal threats, and the monthly challenge of making ends meet on a VISTA Volunteer’s scant salary. We needed to be there for Nancy. Hopefully, she would help our fledging efforts further on down the road. That was the VISTA way.
By the time David, Larry, and I arrived, the open house was going strong. The little Community Center was scrubbed and polished. Proud seven and eight year olds stood beside the reading books while their prouder parents sat at card tables collecting signatures: promises to return and contribute something. They needed everything. Books and school supplies, of course, but any working fan, ice trays, educational games; chairs would be nice too. Aside from tutoring, the refurbished center would be used for community meetings, receptions, recitals and the like. Having this facility in the heart of the community would change lives. No transportation needed.
“You don’t have to bring food because the locals will provide that,” she reminded us. “We need you to help organize childcare, talk with or assist the elderly so they can eat and visit with folks, and just be a presence.” Our orders were clear. Nancy urged us to talk up our own projects because that kind of networking might uncover a helpful friend or relative in our neck of the woods.
The day went well. After all organized activities were completed; everyone went to Nancy’s place where a buffet occupied every inch of her small front porch. With help from her neighbors, about 300 people were able to eat, schmooze, and extend the goodwill into the late afternoon and early evening. With the Orange Crush sky as a backdrop, musicians emerged. The Blues and the Sixth Ward go together like Pearl beer and barbeque. With most everyone filled with short ribs, chicken, and fish, plenty of lemonade and cole slaw, the only thing left to do was enjoy the moment. Kids shot marbles, jumped double Dutch, or tossed horseshoes. Generations swapped stories, talked politics or just listened to bluesy riffs sent adrift by small homemade amplifiers. Yet, in my mind, something was missing. I found a local VISTA and popped the question. “Do you know where we can get a nice watermelon around here?”
At this point, I must interject that I am a connoisseur of watermelon. I unabashedly adore it and I refuse to buy in to all the taboos and caveats about what I consider nectar of the gods. I know, too, about the relationship between racism and watermelon. Sometimes, however, as writer Ralph Ellison noted, in this short life it becomes necessary to own one’s passions. This is one of those times. I wanted nothing more than to contribute to one of the best meals I had ever eaten. Thus began my search for the perfect watermelon.
A colleague and I joined one of the residents and motored over to a nearby grocery store. Pathetic. They had nothing cold; what they did have looked anemic.
“Any other ideas?” I disappointedly asked. “What about that guy that sometimes has a truckload he sells from the vacant lot over near the freeway,” my fellow Vista asked. Strike two. Nowhere in sight. At least we tried; I consoled myself. The horizon flamed burgundy now and the Gulf Oil sign on the Houston skyline had replaced any trace of the sun when the only true Texan in the car suddenly said, “There is one other place we might try, you guys are up for it?” It’ll take about 30 minutes to go there and back, it’s the best I can do.” For a watermelon, the right watermelon, I ‘d consider the ends of the earth.
After a maze of turns and twists, we rolled down a dirt road with no dwelling in sight. Through the last of a half dozen dust clouds, I thought I saw an oasis.
“That’s where Rabbit live,” our guide said. We parked under an arching shade tree that came to resemble the inhabitant of the sheet metal and clapboard house standing nearby. Out of this tumbleweed with windows walked Rabbit. He resembled the male equivalent of Miss Jane Pittman. Introductions followed and he asked me what I was looking for. Somehow a watermelon, or even a big watermelon seemed so inept. I felt like I was standing before the god of all watermelon. “Take a look over here, “ he motioned. We followed Rabbit into a shed that contained a refrigerator. Inside, on every shelf rested watermelons. Some Charleston Grays, a few cut in half, others still covered with a smear of mud. “This what you lookin” for?” our guru said. I nodded, but must have looked puzzled, because he shot back, “How many people you fixin’ to feed?”
I didn’t want to say a few hundred, so I just mumbled something like “as many as I can.” In other words, I want the biggest watermelon you have. Rabbit got the message. “Follow me boys.” We went down a shaky staircase to another room where an old freezer stood. It was so dented and dusty I didn’t think it was working. About the size of a small bathtub, the freezer was plugged in, humming faintly, and wired shut with a knotted old coat hanger.
We offered to help, but Rabbit would have none of it. I watched him take a rusty pair of pliers and painstakingly free the latch. Inside the freezer sat the largest watermelon I have ever seen; at least in person. Deep green and about the size of a standard recycling tub, this was one watermelon for the ages. The old timer estimated the weight near 50 pounds. I was not going to do better; within minutes it was mine. I can’t recall the price, but I know it couldn’t have been more than a few dollars. Back then; the price of watermelon ranged between 5-10 cents a pound. It was never about money.
When we returned to what had now become a block party, we took the ice-cold trophy to Nancy’s house. It took two of us to carry it comfortably. Still reeling from the sheer beauty of this melon, I stood by as some of the more skillful residents of the Sixth Ward did the cutting. Anyone within a mile of that melon who had the taste for some was satiated. Yes, it was cold, sweet, refreshing and visually stunning. With the clean-up organized and in effect, many of the neighborhood kids and I spent the waning minutes of twilight competing in a watermelon seed spitting contest. I was much too full to be a serious contender for the title.
That watermelon, like the Sixth Ward community center brought a lot of folks together that night. Like my experience as a VISTA it forced me to go beyond the easily obtainable and look into the heart of a culture. Both leave an unforgettably sweet taste.
I realize that some might unknowingly romanticize poverty or poor people. My intention here is only to recall one time, when in the midst of neglect, want, and dysfunction, something joyful and beautiful happened, if only for an evening. All the fear and uncertainty would surely return with tomorrow’s heat and humidity.
I’d never known anyone from Alabama before, much less an Alabama Jew. Boo Bronson fit the bill. Easily one of the most likable VISTAs in the class of ’69, Boo became a neighbor of sorts. Byron P. Forney, our landlord, had only mentioned the sagging structure behind the house. It was, in fact, the remains of a garage apartment. Overgrown with weeds, the actual garage itself was useless. The small dark space contained only some well-used garden tools and a sparse collection of useless paint cans. But up the small staircase sat a studio apartment with a small kitchen and tinier bathroom. Boo Bronson decided to make the place his own. Sub-letting the place to him divided our rent by four, twenty-five dollars each. After a thorough scrubbing, a new coat of NASA paint, and a few pieces of Salvation Army furniture, Boo’s place was habitable. For someone who probably had the most decrepit living quarters on the project, he also had the best car. Boo’s 1969 Pontiac GTO, complete with DUKE decal on the back window sat proudly in the driveway. He was one of the few Houston VISTAs who used his own car. Not a bad deal considering the government would pay for gas mileage. Despite that powerful pale yellow car, Boo was known for something else. He was a collector of cannabis. Part social activist, part hedonist, Boo Bronson stored his varieties of pot in hermetically sealed glass jars. He enjoyed showing and handling his collection like a gourmet. Cached almost ceiling level in an elevated kitchen cabinet, Boo would gladly get a step-stool and let any visitor sample the aroma and “purity” of his collection.
Of all the people I have ever known who made marijuana a regular part of their life, Boo had it best in perspective. He knew the difference between time and place and lived his VISTA life separately from his social life. Make no mistake; Boo was not a dealer, though he’d part with his specialties if the price were right. He merely knew his requirements for living and settled for nothing less. Toward the mid point of our year together, Boo developed a strong interest in the law and befriended a few of the new VISTA lawyers. He turned his attention to projects involving legal aid. I’d be very surprised if he is not a practicing attorney today.
To the left of Boo Bronson’s garage apartment was a single room directly above what used to be the garage itself. With decomposing walls and a floor of ancient, cracked linoleum, this space went unused until VISTA lawyer Marvin Feingold revealed his obsession. A talented guitar player, Feingold would stop by now and again to play and sing with David. He was particularly fond of David’s Gibson Hummingbird guitar. The instrument is named for the hummingbird design graphic on the face. Marvin wanted his picture taken with the guitar. No big deal, except he wanted to be nude, standing next to the guitar. He wanted the photo to be taken in the shabby room above the garage. For this, he would pay David handsomely. Never one to refuse easy money, David was honored to fill the request. On the appointed day, both musicians spent about an hour in the “studio.” The end product was a gift for Marvin Feingold’s wife. Small in stature like David, Marvin posed in all his glory holding the guitar by the neck at his side. The finished set of prints featured half dozen pictures from various angles. When word got around about this little project, VISTAS from every corner of Houston dropped by to enjoy a peek at Marvin’s full frontal fantasy. I think Marvin was pleased with his portrait and had plans to use the photo for an album cover should the need arise. Like most of the VISTA lawyers I worked with, Marvin was motivated, dedicated, and sensitive to the needs of his community. Still, we never saw this one coming.
That Spring I was again called to appear before my draft board. I’d asked for an occupational deferment because some boards considered VISTA an important job. Mine didn’t. I had no expectations and was not surprised that my request was denied. This was my cue to write a statement of consciousness objection, something I was prepared to do. On my brief trip home, I stayed with my father for three days. I hadn’t been in my family’s home for about six months, but it felt like decades. My entire perception had changed. Even the shabby carpet on the floor looked elegant to me. Had I become that used to no carpet on old wooden floors? The ability to take a shower whenever I wanted made me giddy. Television seemed irrelevant. I had no idea how much I never noticed about growing up in the San Fernando Valley. The neighborhoods looked so well kept and orderly. The visceral tension of my VISTA life was glaringly absent. When I returned to Texas I was delighted to find David and Larry at the airport waiting to pick me up. How nice, what thoughtful friends. They really care about me. Not exactly.
“Here’s your check, we’re going straight to the bank so you can cash it,” Larry announced.
“Then you need to pay the phone bill,” David added, producing an envelope. “If you don’t do this right now, Southwestern Bell is going to cutoff our phone this afternoon. With no phone we have no Communications Center.” Then came a big shit-eatin’grin.
I knew I had to sacrifice my pay this time, but someone would get me another day. That was the VISTA way. That’s how things got done at 1506 Rosewood. We never missed a call. We never missed a meal.