Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chapter 7

Sweet Home Chicago
c2008 B. Greene

Aside from one personal appearance before my draft board, I made one other trip before returning to Houston to complete my year of service. Larry intended to go home for Christmas to Chicago. Kim would be there for a couple of weeks before traveling to New York to see her family, so I decided to head north. I needed to see if we had any future together. I also wanted to make sure that Kim knew I had no expectation that she would leave the country if need be. I’d been weighing the alternatives and was still unable to make a decision about going to Canada or going to prison. Going to Vietnam was no longer an option. My hope was that we could make a decision and take a stance. Suddenly the draft was complicating everything. I felt cornered. Part of me wanted to go to Canada and be done with the USA. Canadians seemed so sane; images of pristine mountains and rivers tumbled with cosmopolitan cityscapes in my head. I had recently obtained the Manual for Draft Age Immigrants and would read the chapters each night before sleep. I saw myself there, sometimes with Kim, sometimes alone. Each mental rehearsal of escaping to Canada left me torn. I could put an immediate end to all this shit, but then I’d be persona nongratta in my own country. I loved my country. That much I knew.
Another fantasy made occasional appearances in my mind. This one involved the totality of my life up until the moment the draft board would decide my fate. If they were not moved by my work in VISTA or my academic and spiritual influences, certainly my formative years must have some weight. I was the Boy Scout who made it all the way to the top of the mountain. An Eagle Scout at twelve, I could document my community service. I was the one with perfect attendance in school. I adored baseball and hot dogs and helped raise the flag in elementary school. I was a Knight, (men’s honor society) in high school, and senior class president. I won an Ephebian award for service and an American Legion scholarship. How could my integrity be questioned?
In order to take a leave, I was required to follow proper procedure. I needed to obtain official approval, fill out pages of government forms, secure some bureaucrat’s OK and sign a contract committing myself to finish my year of service. All this was to be done in Austin. Larry encouraged me further by offering to drive me to there that afternoon. Four hours later, with all tasks completed, Larry dropped me off at the airport in Austin. My Braniff Airlines flight would originate in Corpus Christi, make a stop in Houston, pick me up in Austin, and then go on to Kansas City and Wichita before arriving in Chicago by daybreak.
I had about 4 more hours to kill before my midnight departure time. I read, I watched others arrive and depart; I ate something, read some more, and thought about Chicago’s brutal winter weather. By 10:00pm the airport was empty. By 10:30, the custodial staff had vacuumed, and all sound, save the Musak disappeared. I was completely alone in the airport. The ticket clerks had vanished, there was hardly the security presence of today’s airports then; it was lovely albeit a bit daunting. By midnight, I saw and heard a plane land. As instructed, when it taxied up to within walking distance of the window near my seat, I walked out to the tarmac. From my left appeared a portable stairway rolling behind a small tractor. Securely in place, the door opened and the Braniff flight attendant, appearing more like a go-go dancer in her orange and fuchsia shorts, called my name. I sighed. I boarded. Within minutes I was part of the November sky, listening to Led Zeppelin on the preprogrammed stereo channel. The flight never could land in Kansas City because of a blizzard. As luck would have it, I was sitting next to an excited G I on leave from “Nam” and eager to see his family. I was only 22, but he seemed so young to me. I wanted to tell him about the November Moratorium or at least feel him out on his views about the war, but a skidding plane in a snowstorm is hardly the time. We made casual conversation about the storm and laughed together when a rattled businessman kept screaming “I have to be in Kansas City tomorrow morning at 9 a.m.” He smiled and exited coatless into the blowing snow in Wichita. Early the next morning, after circling O’Hare airport for 45 minutes, I landed in Chicago.
I have often thought of that evening in Austin’s airport. I felt like I had hitched a ride on a passing airplane back then. With all the changes in airport security since then, what are the chances of boarding a plane like that ever happening again?
I found Kim working as a social worker on the Southside in a neighborhood that rivaled the 5th Ward for danger. It was Blackstone Ranger territory. The notorious street gang made their presence felt daily. Turf wars, muggings and shootings, not to mention ice covered streets made the area extremely dangerous. But Kim took particular delight in helping her clients beat the system. I’d accompany her now and then to find an elderly person living in a small apartment with no heat, or surviving on cat food until the next small welfare benefit arrived. Eventually, the Chicago winter and the constant threat of being victimized took a toll. She wasn’t particularly happy there. Kim is a water person and everything was frozen. I knew if I spent a couple of weeks with her and constantly reminded her of the warmer Texas winter, the proximity to the Gulf coast, and the horses, she might consider returning to Houston. Not as a VISTA, however. That part of her life was over. But Kim still had many friends on the project and with the new year came another opportunity.

January 1970
The U.S. Census Bureau put out a call for census takers in Houston; that helped to seal the deal. The work was temporary but paid well. She knew the neighborhoods where undocumented workers were least likely to answer their doors. Her youth, energy, and charismatic personality would all contribute to her effectiveness. Besides, I could tag along now and then and use my Espanol if she ever got in a jam. Perhaps the local authorities could now tolerate her presence in poor communities working for this branch of the government rather than the Office of Economic Opportunity. Census workers never got questioned.

Chicago Blues:Playing harp on the Illinois Central Platform

The time in Chicago passed quickly. Fortunately, Larry’s friend Tony and his family took me in on Christmas day and my time alone in Chicago wasn’t too bad. I rode the El and the Illinois Central systems and thoroughly explored the city. Between the University of Chicago, the museums, and the blues scene, there was plenty to do. I even looked up Bruce Grossman, a friend from UCLA, who was doing substitute teaching there until his draft status was finalized. The thought of remaining and working as a sub seemed attractive until I began the process of application. I took some sort of placement test, and filled out a sheaf of forms. Getting to daily assignments during the Chicago winter would be daunting. I tried a few practice runs during my last few days there and it soon became apparent the combination of distance, weather, and dicey neighborhoods would take a stiff toll. I picked up my pace while walking through a particularly dangerous stretch and slipped on an icy street corner. The heels of my leather boots were like mossy rocks on those south Chicago streets. Slamming my elbow and butt simultaneously on the slick cement, I decided to rethink winter in Chicago.
By New Year’s Day, Kim had returned. When the temperature dipped to -14 a few days later, I knew it was time to return to Houston. I had never felt bone-chilling cold like that before. I put on nearly every shirt I had and we went for a walk down by Lake Michigan. Even with layers of shirts, a sweater, a scarf, and my heaviest jacket, the wind blew right through me. The day before I left, I went for a walk in the Hyde Park section near the University of Chicago. Head down, breath steaming in a whorl before me, I heard a voice from a side alley. Stopping to listen, I caught a glimpse of a panhandler.
“Hey buddy,” the weak voice called. “You gotta a dime or a quarter for some coffee?”
I took my ungloved hands from my jacket pockets and tried to pry them inside my front Levi pocket where I knew what little money remained was hiding. As I jerked my hand out to retrieve a quarter, it caught on two rumpled dollar bills also present. They tumbled to the ground and rested right in front of the beggar. Goal!! Game over. His eyes blazed with unexpected delight.
“Go on,” I said. Clutching tighter to the quarter, I turned around and walked back to Kim’s apartment. Dean Martin’s voice singing “Goin’ back to Houston” filled my head. I hated that song. Somehow it fit perfectly in the moment.
Chicago, in my view, has always been the quintessential city. My time there cemented that notion firmly in place.

With Kim near frozen Lake Michigan

We made a tentative plan for Kim to join me by March and shortly thereafter I headed back to O’Hare airport and the wait to fly standby. On the return flight I mulled over all the things I hoped to accomplish before my year was up. I wanted to leave the University of Thought a viable educational alternative. The Issue was growing in size and importance and I also wanted to make sure that my role as poetry editor continued. We were getting more letters from VISTAs all over the region who were questioning their motives and needed to talk about what kind of organizing might best serve their projects. I was anxious, too, to see Amber. Julie had tossed out the idea of breeding her and I certainly didn’t want to miss that. Returning to Houston was invigorating. Exiting the aircraft that afternoon, the temperature read 72 degrees. I unwrapped my scarf from around my neck and hurriedly took off my heavy winter coat. I never wore either again for the remainder of the year.
The remaining winter days were filled with teaching my class, getting out the latest version of The Issue, and offering assistance to other VISTAS throughout the city. Of course, there were other minor emergencies that erupted from time to time. I recall a phone message asking all VISTAS with government cars to meet in a parking lot near a grocery store. One of the local VISTAS was being seriously hassled by some folks who resented her presence and work with poor people. It was time for a show of support. Something we referred to as “a full scale poverty alert.” Our detractors seemed to lose their nerve with the presence of U.S. Government cars around. The theory was that if a whole shitload of those cars showed up all at once it served as a deterrent to potential aggressors. Somehow that “official use only” under the U.S. Government got people thinking in the direction of G-men? FBI? Some authority I never heard of? Before our colleague exited the grocery store we had assembled no less than 20 government vehicles around her car. The bullies got the message and took off through a rear exit. All further taunting ended that night.
Every now and then we’d take the mystique of the government car to another level. Texas had no shortage of car with Confederate flags, gun racks, or KKK stickers. If we happened to roll alongside one on the freeway, whoever was riding shotgun would slowly reach for the glove compartment while eyeing the occupants of the vehicle next to us. There, in each GSA car was a small black binder. Used primarily for receipts, it also contained information about servicing the car and some do’s and don’ts. We’d pretend to write in the black notebook while staring at the passengers in neighboring cars. Usually the brief sense of freight that resulted was enough to satisfy our abuse of power.
One evening in the midst of those busy days almost changed the course of everything. David asked me if I’d accompany him to a small club in downtown Houston to see a musician he’d recently met. He’d been taking some photographs at Herman Park and had a conversation with a woman called Sally who invited him to see her perform.
“She sings and plays piano at a small place a few nights a week,” he told me. “Let’s go down there and see one set, I think you’ll like her music.” Down there turned out to be skid row and the club looked more like a seedy dive, but the crowd was friendly and overflowing. At the far end of the bar sat a small piano. Before David’s friend was introduced, I noticed a heated discussion between two fairly inebriated guys on the other side of the room. Whatever their disagreement, it seemed to dissolve when the music started. No wonder, the main attraction was outstanding. Sally played a mix of standards and her own material with a silky, soulful mastery of the keyboard. The audience adored her. After two encores, David went to the rear of the club to say hello while I remained at our small table. A new Beatle album, Abbey Road, had just been released and when it came on during intermission I was captivated by the music and lyrics. Soon after “Here Comes The Sun,” David and I exited the still packed club and walked toward our GSA Dodge Dart parked about four blocks away. We crossed a fairly well lit street and then continued up a dark side street half a block where the car was parked. Out of the night a figure lurched forward from between two parked cars. Taking a stance about three feet in front of us and directly in our path he snarled, ”Aw right, what do you motherfuckers want?” Between my racing heartbeat and my eyes focused on an object he held in one hand, I could barely speak. David remained silent. What was he holding? It was too small to be a gun, yet its silver gleam in the moonlight was near blinding. A straight razor. He produced the blade and repeated the question. “What the fuck do you want with me?” In my mind, I instantly saw blood. Our blood, lots of it. But we were still uncut and maybe there was a way we could defuse this guy. Like Spanky and Alfalfa of the Little Rascals, we stammered and then blurted, “Us? We don’t want nothin’ from you. You must be looking for someone else.”
“So you ain’t mad no more?”
“Naw, we weren’t ever mad.”
Finally, it hit me. This was the guy that was arguing with someone before the music started. He obviously thinks I’m that guy. I realized his adversary had dark curly hair and a moustache like mine. If it was dark in that bar it was even darker where we now stood.
“I think you might have the wrong person,” I suggested. We don’t know you, and you don’t know us.” He looked quizzical, if not relieved.
“I think I might look like the guy you were talking with a while ago.”
Lowering the razor to his side he blurted, “All right pass on.”
David and I stole a glance at each other. Neither wanted to be first, but someone had to move. Heartbeats pounding, we slowly walked past this dangerous, drunken fool. He followed us for about 50 feet. When he saw the GSA car with the sign on the door “US Government, For Official Use Only,” he took off running.
David and I wanted to laugh, or congratulate each other for keeping our heads under pressure but we were still too scared to say much. All the way home we muttered nothing but inaudible phrases or lengthy exhales. By the next morning I was ready to joke about not going to downtown music clubs with him again. It took at least a month for me to get the sight of that chrome straight razor out of my head. That could have been one messy night; fortunately it remains only a passing memory.

No laughing matter

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Chapter 6

B. Greene

Chapter 6-Washington DC

War can only be understood and put an end to if you and all those who are concerned very deeply with the survival of man, feel that you are utterly responsible for killing others. What will make you change?
- J. Krishnamurti

November/December 1969

They knew they couldn’t stop us. Everyone on the project wanted to go to the November Moratorium. When we promised to return in within two weeks, the matter was closed. Our individual efforts in the war on poverty would have to wait. It became paramount to go to the nation’s capital and speak with body and mind. True, famous folks from entertainers to politicians would be there, but this was no rock concert, no block party. Moratorium meant halt, meant enough with a collective voice of half a million. We wanted to be part of the sound of that voice. The war dragged on despite Nixon’s “secret plan” to end it. By the time we figured out transportation and lodging, the American death toll topped 32,000. Nothing mattered more at the time.
Every time I looked over the maps, the result was always the same. Getting from Houston, Texas to Washington D.C. would involve Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee. Alabama, in particular gave me pause for concern. The Civil Rights marches in Selma and Birmingham were all too recent. White northerners passing through needed to be careful. Young white northerners, with long hair or out of state plates needed to be extra careful. Perhaps we’d be able to bypass Mississippi. The murdered civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi and countless other slain or missing people conjured up fear and suspicion. At least, I’d have the company of my housemates on this mission. David, Larry, and I rode with Pat McNieve, a VISTA originally from Kansas who had escaped the priesthood and seminary life just a few months earlier. Pat was an affable loner who we all wanted to get to know a little better. He was also a very funny man. The way he talked about his experiences in the seminary could fill a room with laughter in minutes. He’d imitate Italian or Irish priests with perfect accents.
“ Look at the papers, these fine young lads arrested for drug possession,” he’d say in a perfect Brogue. “And all of them Catholic lads…” Pat was part stand-up comic, part lost adolescent who entered VISTA in his late twenties to reclaim his life while being of service to others. His 1962 Dodge Polara, complete with a Kansas license plate, would serve us well. It provided a trace of anonymity through the Deep South.
Most of the trip to DC was uneventful. Interstates and gas stops, a comment now and then about what city we just passed or the climate of the region. The weather was mostly overcast or raining, the dark hours passed consumed by catnaps, long looks at cotton fields, farm towns, and rural railroad crossings. Then Pat produced a joint. His newfound freedom, like his experimentation with recreational drugs, was euphoric at times and he didn’t always think about the consequences. A discussion ensued about what might happen if we somehow got caught with marijuana. Pat’s naiveté had caught up with us. It would have been fine with me to just ditch any dope, but that proved too unpopular. Finally, consensus reached: let’s just smoke up everything we have now. (A VISTA tradition) Pat began to loosen up and started telling more stories and jokes about the seminary. Nothing seemed funny to me. He’d giggle over jokes I’d heard in the 7th grade.
“Hey did you ever hear the one about Pastor Fuzz?”
“Yeah Pat, that was like 15 years ago.”
“What about Johnny Fuckerfaster?”
“Just drive Pat. And hurry up with that joint, these state patrols have dogs that can smell anything.”
I assumed every car that passed us on the interstate could see the thickening cloud of smoke in our vehicle. My paranoia turned into a sense of the absurd by the time we reached the edge of Virginia. Pat’s car battery began overcharging wildly. The battery gauge seemed about to explode. Looking at the flailing needle nonplussed, he announced, “This is not a big deal, all I have to do is turn my lights on, watch what happens.” Sure enough the needle returned to “Normal.” “What’s so awful about driving with our lights on in the daytime?” he questioned. Normally nothing, but on this day that was not the case. Apparently a pro Vietnam War group had organized a counter rally for November 15. In an attempt to show support for their viewpoint, they instructed all those who supported the war to drive to Washington with their lights on. We had no choice. Maybe this would make traveling without police harassment possible after all.
With four in the car, we could change drivers every few hours and go straight through. Yet Pat insisted on doing most of the driving. Our destination was Gaithersburg, Maryland, a suburb on the outskirts of D.C. Pat knew a woman who lived and worked there who graciously allowed 12 people, mostly from the project, to squeeze into her small one bedroom apartment for three days.
Kim, no longer in VISTA, drove in with some friends from Chicago. When thousands of young people achieve critical mass in the nation’s capital, accommodations get crowded. About three carloads met at the apartment. David reunited with his girlfriend Nancy and quickly grabbed the bedroom with another couple. Another six people occupied the living room and small dining area. Kim and I shared a sleeping bag on the kitchen floor. Privacy demanded a price. Looking up from my bed on the linoleum, I noticed a large iron skillet sitting on a front burner. I quickly cleared the stove of anything that might fall and tried to take a nap. By Friday, November 14, everyone had settled in. After reading the local papers and walking around DC a bit, we decided to participate in a march taking place the evening before the big rally set for Saturday the 15th. This event was more to my liking because it involved walking past the White House en route to the Capital building. I wanted to play an active role, not watch a show and listen to speeches.

VISTA Nancy Hite at the DC Vietnam Moritorium
By late Friday afternoon, we headed to Arlington Cemetery where the march was to assemble. People poured in from coast to coast; a rainbow of license plates lined the city.
They had walked out of classrooms and work places. They had abandoned all obligations. College decals or parking stickers from San Diego to Boston, Florida to Oregon adorned buses, vans, new sedans and barely running clunkers. Being my first time in Washington, I opened my senses to take in everything from the crisp air, the deep reds and rusty gold of the autumn leaves to the striking architecture of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. My field of vision looked like enormous post cards. Part of me felt like I was in Disneyland, the other part held contempt for the halls of power so close at hand. As always, the nagging contradiction of risking arrest to protest a government that was my employer irritated me as well. But there was another contradiction taking root too: the dichotomy between country and government.
“You can still love your country and hate your government,” the bespectacled twenty year-old wearing a monitor’s armband sternly told a flag waving contingent who began to congregate around the march’s starting point.
“How dare you question my patriotism,” his girlfriend offered. “These people over here,” she said pointing at us, “they are the true patriots, what makes you think they don’t love their country just as much as you do?”

Official VISTA ID; useful in case of arrest

The march was extremely well organized. Monitors wearing armbands that read NPAC (National Peace Action Coalition) funneled us into long lines behind a row of tables spread out over the rim of a meadow about the size of a football field. They handed us literature that clearly explained what we’d be doing and how we were to do it. The handouts noted that up to this moment in time, there had been just over 32,000 U.S. deaths in Vietnam. Each marcher would receive the name of a fallen soldier, and a candle.

We’d be marching across the Potomac River and through D.C. until we reached the steps of the Capital building. Once there we would see enormous black coffins placed on various steps to the building. We were instructed to remove the name we carried and place it into one of the coffins. Once that had been done, our role in the march would end. When I got up to the table, a friendly organizer asked me where I’d come from. I mentioned that I was originally from California, and she informed me that I’d be carrying the name of a Californian killed in Vietnam. She handed me a rectangular cardboard placard that was about eight inches wide and two feet long. Thick string had been tied to the card to hold it in place over my neck. In large, neatly printed black letters on one side of the white card the name GARY LYLE RICHARDSON was printed. I took a six-inch candle from her as well and then joined the main formation with my friends. We merged with 32,000 others and waited to begin the trek.
It takes a good while for thousands of folks to walk across D.C. When the cold rain began, keeping the candles lit became our chief concern. Many of the monitors had lighters and appeared out of the night to keep those candles burning. Finally someone handed me a paper cup with a hole in the bottom that provided just enough protection from the wind and rain to keep the candles burning. Nobody mentioned it, but I’m sure we all thought of the symbolism connected to those candles. They must remain lit at all cost. When the wind chill factor on the bridge over the Potomac kicked in, I was glad to be obsessed with keeping my candle glowing. It gave me something to focus on aside from warming my hands. By the time we approached Pennsylvania Avenue I noticed thousands of others lining the streets of DC. It soon became clear, when some folks joined a name carrier and marched alongside that these were relatives of the fallen soldiers. There were parents, siblings and aunts and uncles all along the way. At any time someone who knew the person behind the name could come out of the dark and join the march. It could be a girlfriend, a neighbor, or a member of the clergy. With every step came more searching faces. All along the route, people were monitoring the names, looking carefully, and checking again, and then, if the name they were hoping to see appeared, they’d tearfully join the march. It was as if the deceased had suddenly come back to life.
I kept thinking about Gary Richardson as I walked. I wondered if he were anything like my friend Bill Garcia? Two California boys, out of 32,000, who possibly had someone waiting in the frigid shadows of this night. Two guys who would never see their 21st birthday or marry, know fatherhood, or even see their families again. While some of the marchers were singing, most walked mutely, lost in thought. I conjured up that Life magazine cover of 100 and tried to imagine 32,000 graduation pictures in print. I thought about the Vietnamese people too. With the Tet offensive the previous year had come so many haunting images of death and destruction. I thought about the anti-personnel weapons in use with metal shavings taking out the eyes and organs of children and their grandparents. I heard my government’s continual denial. Vietnam changed how we conceptualized war; it revolutionized the role of the media and brought the daily reality into our living rooms. With each step of that pilgrimage, I rewound every image and diatribe I connected to Vietnam. I saw Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. The fatherly “most trusted man in America” would reveal the statistics every Thursday evening. His familiar face superimposed over American, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, and Vietcong flags that detailed the weekly casualties in inanimate, obscene numbers. We called it the scoreboard.
Shortly before we reached the White House, the monitors informed us that we could briefly stop the moment we were in front of the gate. They encouraged us to make an abrupt right face and shout the name we carried as loud as we could. We all knew that President Nixon wasn’t home that night. He’d gone to Camp David, I think, to watch college football games and avoid the influx of his “fellow Americans.” The monitors reminded us that our pause had better be quick because anything out of the ordinary would result in one of the nearby guards arresting us post haste. My moment at the palace gate wasn’t wasted. I could see the white mansion in all it’s neatly trimmed detail far off in the distance. I could touch the iron bars of the front gate with ease. Uniformed security officers lined the entranceway, and I came face to face with one when I made my pivot. I didn’t want to screech my assigned name, yet I wanted to be loud. What if my emotions got the best of me and I cried or choke-up? The three names poured out of my well-chilled body with clarity and volume. I shouted: Gary… Lyle… Richardson. A few steps later, overcome with emotion, I took a deep breath and gathered myself for the final push: the Capital.

The White House that night

It’s difficult to see the U.S. Capital for the first time and not think of all the government textbooks you’ve ever seen. At least for me it is. The halls of democracy always seemed so pristine, so rational. I thought too, of my red, white, and blue education, my Eagle Scout badge, and how remote the mud and blood of Vietnam was from the spot where I now stood. The rain had finally abated and the glowing chalky walls of Washington were near blinding. But there was another light emanating from the area as my section of the march prepared for the final leg. Small twinkling lights seemed to be covering the Capital steps. Making my way forward, I noticed the first of many oversized black coffins. The big painted plywood boxes adorned the steps of this historic landmark. One by one, marchers removed their name signs and placed them in the coffins. When each one was filled, the top was lowered and an empty one soon took its place. The mystery of the twinkling lights revealed itself as well. People were placing their cupped lit candles on the closed coffin lids before disappearing into the blackness. I did the same. About 30 seconds later, I turned around and looked over my shoulder. Candle-lit coffins scattered in front of the capital, growing smaller with each step; I wanted to place that image in my mind forever. On the way back to our car I noticed one of the monitors taking off his armband. Before he could discard it, I asked if I could have it. I wanted a talisman. I wanted to remember this night always.

It was early the next morning before we got back to Gaithersburg. Thoroughly chilled, sleep came quickly. Kim and I chose to spend the next day together and forego the rally. The decision not to attend the Saturday rally was difficult but the right one. We each had to head back the next day; time to talk quietly and simply catch up on each other’s lives was at a premium. Some of the rally was televised so we were able to see much of the music and speeches. Dr. Benjamin Spock, on whose ideas our generation was raised, gave an impassioned plea to stop the war. Entertainers like Joan Baez and Ritchie Havens followed. Even some currently in Congress like Ted Kennedy gave carefully worded speeches. By late afternoon the media carried another story. As is often the case, a radical faction estimated at 2000 had broken off from the mass of marchers and a violent confrontation with police and National Guard troops reinforced by 9000 infantrymen brought in for the event followed. One of the second year VISTAS in charge of transportation home grew concerned and the call came to begin to round up everyone and figure out how we were going to get back to Houston. Pat planned to make a stop in Kansas on his way back so David, Larry and I took a ride with Eric, a second year VISTA and acting supervisor.. With Kim safely on her way back to Chicago, my attention turned to getting back to Houston in time for the first meeting of the next Rock and Blues class.
We made one sweep of the D.C. area to see if any VISTAS might be stranded. Dupont Circle was empty, save for the litter and lingering tear gas that hung like frost over the nation’s capital. My mood was solemn if not depressed. That evening we drove straight through to Atlanta. Except for an hour spent in traffic court in North Carolina, we made excellent time. I never realized that small town’s with speed traps would give violators the opportunity to settle up and move on within an hour. Eric, the driver, had some extra money from the project for emergencies. After he paid the fine, he mentioned that we were to rendezvous with another carload of VISTAS in Atlanta and
I would be flying back from there with two others to Houston. The logic being that the second term of the University of Thought needed to start on time and I would benefit from an extra day or two to prepare. I didn’t know it at the time but David and Larry decided to spend a couple of days in Atlanta and then to hitchhike back to Houston. I got worried when I hadn’t heard from them for a week. They finally called collect from Rayville, a town in northern Louisiana. Seems as if they’d been stuck there a good while until a trucker gave them a lift part ways. We had all seen the film Easy Rider a few weeks before and the ending would not leave me alone. People disappeared on country roads in northern Louisiana. By the time they stumbled in a few days later, everyone on the project was relieved to see them back in Houston.
That weekend and my participation in the placard carrying march remain as one of the most profound experiences of my life. I subsequently found out that approximately 46,000 people made that trek from Arlington to the Capital. It took 40 hours to carry those names past the White House and fill those coffins. Even President Nixon would concede that the 500,000 that rallied On November 15, 1969 impacted his decision not to use his “secret plan” to end the war. That hidden solution, it was later revealed turned out to be tactical nuclear weapons.

Lay down, lay down, lay it all down
Let your white birds smile up
At the ones who stand and frown
Lay down, lay down, lay it all down
Let your white birds smile up
At the ones who stand and frown.

We were so close, there was no room
We bled inside each other's wounds
We all had caught the same disease
And we all sang the songs of peace
Some came to sing, some came to pray
Some came to keep, the dark away

So raise the candles high
'Cause if you don't we could stay black against the sky, oh
Oh, raise them higher again
And if you do we could stay dry against the rain.
“Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chapter 5

Chapter 5 Horses
c2008 B. Greene

I figured when I first set out for Texas that horses might be easier to come by. I was right. In Houston, it was not uncommon to see horse trailers in parking lots, at gas stations, or on occasion, right in front of your house. So it was that one afternoon when Julie and I volunteered to take everyone’s laundry down to the local washateria, we chanced to see a pair of Appaloosas in a trailer parked nearby. Since Alun, her boyfriend had departed for Wales, Julie and another VISTA, Nancy Hite had moved into 1506 Rosewood. Both were second year Vistas waiting for rooms in the newly opened Project House on Rosedale St. Nancy had spent a rough first year in the 6th Ward and after surviving an attempted rape decided to move to another area. She’d taken a liking to David and he was doing his best to make her feel comfortable.
With Kim gone, Julie and I commiserated and kept busy. She too loved horses and had extensive experience riding hunters and jumpers growing up in Virginia. After a back injury, her riding days were cut short and she hoped to one day just be able to ride for pleasure.
“I’ve always wanted to own a horse,” I said as we passed the two Appys in the trailer.
“You know,” she said, “It wouldn’t be all that difficult around here.”
The following week we were sitting at an auction entertaining the fantasy. When a timid gelding entered the ring and drew very little attention we decided to bid a hundred dollars. Ten minutes and two bids later he was ours. Fortunately Julie had done some research and knew there was a stable about 20 minutes out of town where we could board our new friend for a reasonable monthly fee. With six people now living at the Communications Center, lower rent made even this luxury possible. The problem was getting our bay gelding to the stables. Reading the puzzled look on our faces an older Black man in overalls approached and made an offer.
“For twenty dollars I’ll carry that horse anywhere within an hour of here.”
Just when I thought our problem had been solved, I realized this man didn’t have a horse trailer; he was intending to use an old pick-up with stakes. He’d purchased a horse himself at the auction and he proceeded to load both with ease. I was dumbfounded. My amazement turned to anxiety as we followed behind the truck on the freeway. The two horses were merely tied to one of the stakes and kept shifting their weight throughout the ride. The bed of the old pick-up bent like a rowboat on choppy water. On the ride over, Julie and I named our horse Albion, after Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight. It seemed an elegant name for a cheap horse just shipped in from the Texas panhandle. Within the hour Albion was in a pasture and we were on our way to Sears to buy grooming brushes, a hoof pick and a bridle. Getting a saddle would have to wait another month.
With Albion came a warm friendship with stables owner Willard Smith. An excellent horseman, Willard ran the operation with help from his wife and children. About 50 horses grazed in a wide expanse of scrub brush loosely called a pasture. Another 35 or so were boarded in stalls in both a main barn and some outside pens scrabbled together from plywood and sheet metal. Willard loved horses and sensed that we did too. While we never discussed politics, he knew by the government cars we drove that we were VISTAS.
Sensing that our love of horses was disproportionate to our income, Willard quietly helped us along. Once when Albion caught a bad cold he graciously helped us by providing antibiotics for no charge. There was Albion head down with streams of green snot streaming form his nose. Grabbing what appeared to be an oversize chrome hypodermic syringe and a needle about four inches long. Willard showed me how to inject a horse. I would hold Albion’s head while he would tap three times on the neck with his left hand. On the fourth tap, he’d throw the needle like a dart sticking it into the horse’s neck and then screw in the syringe. I assisted Willard as he went through the barn inoculating any horse that seemed to be experiencing similar symptoms. Afterwards, we shared a snort of whiskey.

As genuine a person as you'll ever meet.

Willard was always about finding good homes for horses. In the process he could introduce his own children to horsemanship and keep a few head for himself. Willard and Mrs. Smith were in their late 40s or early 50s. Their youngest son, about 11 or 12 was a special needs kid who also had his own horse, a huge gelded Palomino. The two were inseparable, but not in the usual way. The boy would grab a hold of the horse’s tail from directly behind and “water ski” as the horse pulled him along. This was all the more remarkable because, according to Willard, the animal had once been so wild he was considered unrideable. Willard also explained that horses have very little feeling in their manes or tails because they contain no nerve endings. What looked painful to the outsider was not.

He called it “water-skiing”

Having a horse to ride was a most welcome stress reliever. When things in the city got overwhelming or depressing, a couple of hours grooming and riding a horse seemed the perfect antidote. Albion, however, wasn’t always cooperative. Willard figured he’d been traumatized in his early years and the result was a most high-strung disposition. He seldom walked. His two gears were a brisk trot and a gallop. Proof of his mistreatment came in he form of a large scab right at the base of his tail. We realized that when he was brought in from Amarillo his rear end was flush against a rough wooden stake. The scab was the result of a raw patch of flesh that finally healed. Willard told me we’d have to get it off after a while because other horses would nip at him in the pasture and there would definitely be trouble. Horses kick and bite. It’s not uncommon for them to cause serious injury to one another or even take out an eye. About a month after Albion joined the herd his scab was beginning to peal off. It resembled an enormous bay colored potato chip ripe for the picking.
“We got to get it off him, and there’s only one way,” Willard announced late one afternoon. He instructed me to watch carefully because he wanted to make sure I learned the proper procedure. We lured Albion near with a bucket of feed and Willard told me to hold his head while he circled behind the unsuspecting horse. In much the same way one would lower a fly swatter over a perched fly, Willard moved one had near the scab. Before I could blink he grabbed that crusty flap of skin firmly and ripped it off!
“Run like hell,” he yelled. We both took off and Albion bucked and kicked, and snorted and bolted. Out of breath and numb from laughter, Willard offered me a snort of whiskey. That scab never bothered Albion again.
By late autumn, it was apparent that Albion was a head case. He never calmed down completely. When a few other VISTAS teamed up to buy horses that Willard recommended, (I’m sure he dropped the prices to make them affordable) it was possible to go riding with friends. Although I rode Albion frequently, he never seemed comfortable around other horses. Willard sensed this and called Julie aside one afternoon. He told her of a six-year-old mare soon to be up for sale. Amber was a barrel racing champ and owned by the soon to be ex-wife of a Houston cop.
“She just wants to get rid of the horse,” Willard said. “The mare was a gift from her husband and she wants to return everything and move on. I think I can get you a good deal.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, and I certainly couldn’t see how we could afford to upgrade. One look at Amber changed all that. She was a big buckskin quarter horse mare who moved with speed and agility. If Albion was a Model T, Amber was a Lamborghini. All buckskin horses have a black mane and black tails. This just enhanced her beauty. The price would be $500. Julie and I knew trading Albion and the cash was out of the question. Unless…unless…I sold my car. I had a ’59 VW bug sitting in my garage in L.A. I’d resisted all offers from my friends, but I didn’t know when or if I’d ever get back there. Somehow this seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity. Cars would come and go; Amber would not. I sold my car within a week, and Amber was ours and soon joined the other grazers in Willard’s pasture.
Having a horse like Amber gave Julie and me opportunities to introduce neighborhood kids to the magic of riding a horse. One morning we placed our saddles on saw horses in the front yard for a little cleaning. As we worked the conditioners and soap deep into the leather, a gang of kids formed.
“Whatcha doin’?
“We’re workin’ on our saddles?”
“Them your saddles? You got horses too?”
“Yeah, you like horses? Ever ride a horse?”
“Naw. But I sure would like to. Hey Mista, can we ride your horses?”
Because she was well trained and fairly gentle, a little horseback riding field trip soon took shape.
I was trying to balance my own self-interest with my work in the Third ward, so bringing kids to the stables offered a solution. I could easily place two kids on the saddle in front of me and give them the thrill of a gallop. I wondered if Willard would ever say something because all the kids were Black. The borders of race were held firmly in place in Houston, but he never said a word. He never changed his attitude or his willingness to help or teach us about our horses. In his own way, he’d become an important part of the project. The horse always came first for Willard.

A beautiful buckskin mare

Despite Willard’s help, having a horse proved taxing to our limited income. There were grooming implements, feed supplements, hoof picks and other unforeseen expenses. It was not unlike having a child. When the Texas summer turned icy Julie began to worry about Amber’s health. She had long fantasized about breeding her and seemed to have turned her own maternal instincts toward our mare. We had recently bought a blanket and secured a stall for the winter months.
“Bruce, the weather report said it might get down below freezing tonight,” Julie said one early November evening. “Ill see if I can get out to the stables and put a blanket on Amber this afternoon when she comes in from the pasture. If I can’t, do you think you could get out there? I’ll call you later.”
“Sure, I’ll be home early afternoon, just try to call me before it gets dark.”
By sundown the sky looked like tarnished silver. We turned on every working gas heater we could find and wore layers for the first time. Since I hadn’t heard from Julie all day I assumed Amber had been blanketed. At ten o’clock the phone jerked me from premature sleep.
“Bruce,” Julie said near panic. “I never got to the stables; I must have fallen asleep. Can you get down there and put a blanket on Amber, it’s 30 degrees out there.”
I agreed and set out for the stables. What I neglected to tell Julie or anyone else for that matter was that I had broken my glasses. All I had was a pair of prescription sunglasses. Hoping to go unnoticed, I emerged looking more like John Lennon going to the beach than a concerned horse owner. I needed these glasses to drive. Fortunately the moonlight lasted and no officer from the Texas Department of Public Safety saw me behind the wheel. Amber was pleasantly surprised at my appearance and, as usual, very cooperative as I got the blanket firmly in place. The other horses seemed envious. When Julie asked me the next morning how everything went, I reported Amber’s cooperative disposition and how uncommonly dark the freezing night had been. It seems to me we never used that blanket much after that. Or maybe Julie made certain the task was completed well before sundown.
Throughout my time in Texas, being able to drive out to the stables, call Amber in with a bucket of “sweet feed,” and then saddle and bridle her up for a ride was a fantasy come true. Sometimes I’d ride in a section of the pasture near the highway and wave to the truckers beginning another 24 hour run. Sometimes it was children in the backseats of station wagons who enjoyed flashing their fingers in a peace sign oblivious to their parents. People don’t ignore someone on horseback, even in Texas. Just when I thought it couldn’t get better, one final horse dream came true.
In the spring of 1970, the Grand National Rodeo came to Houston. The Grand Marshall was Elvis Presley. This was a very big deal for Texans. The Rodeo was held in the enormous Astrodome and featured a parade down Main Street that culminated at the stadium. All Houstonians who owned horsed could ride in the parade. A city ordinance allowed horses within the confines of the city for a 24-hour period. In short, people could tie up their horses in front of their houses overnight. My childhood fantasy of riding down my street and dismounting in front of my own home was about to come true. At the allotted time we drove the ten miles out to the stable and brought in Amber and another horse. It took a few hours, but it was well worth the time. We made stops at a corner grocery store for cold drinks. We cleaned up an occasional load of manure, and finally we tied up our horses on the front porch railing. I awoke several times during the night to check on the horses. By the next morning, I found Amber standing quietly, but her companion, a gelding named Apple had managed to untie himself and was munching contentedly on a neighbor’s lawn. Fortunately he cooperated with my urging and no one was any the wiser. We did not ride in the rodeo parade. That was never our intention.
Before long, there were four horses owned by a variety of VISTA combinations. Julie still had aspirations to ride again and purchased a young gelding she named Braun. She felt he’d make an excellent jumper because of his size. The bay horse was aptly named and must have stood 16 hands easily. Except for one time when I agreed to sit on his back just to see if he was broken, I stayed away from Braun.

Julie and Braun
Amber was my baby and I fell deeply in love. On warm afternoons I’d sometimes sneak away just to spend a few minutes with her. She knew my car, and recognized my face. All I had to do is throw a few cups of “sweet feed” into a plastic bucket and shake the molasses laced mixture. The sound of the oats and grain quickly caught her attention. In she’d gambol eager to get her nose in the bucket. This was a game we played; a tradeoff we made. While Amber gobbled her snack, I’d slip the bridle over her head, clean her feet with a hoof pick and get ready to ride. Sometimes, I loved to just drape myself over her neck and look at the Texas horizon through her ears.

The soft fuzz reminded me of tiny wheat fields in the sun.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Chapter 4

Above This Wall
c2008 B. Greene

Chapter 4

Early September 1969

“Just what is it you do all day?” We heard that question repeatedly from friends and family. If the job of a VISTA could be called anything, political organizing comes closest. The work of Saul Alinsky dominated much of the training. Alinsky, whose ideas changed the face of political organizing in the 60s, argued that lasting change could only come from working within the system. He felt that organizers, once their work took root, should remain largely invisible. In theory, Alinsky’s ideas provided structure; in practice, however, they took another form. Most often, calls for help at all hours, or figuring out how to put pressure on the system without getting arrested.
Meeting immediate needs dominated our first few weeks. A call came one night at 11 pm. requesting physical labor. A family had to move immediately. Either eviction or some other unexplained drama, but the VISTA on the other end of the line sounded frantic. We’ll be there. “I’ll drive,” David says, and out we go without benefit of coffee or candy for energy. We creep through dark streets that lead to the red brick of public housing and an even darker scene. Babies crying, closets emptied into plastic garbage bags, older children clutching stuffed animals, and single mothers, always single mothers with fear and fatigue on their faces trying to find words of apology, sentences that add up to some form of thanks.
“You’ll have to angle that out from left to right,” someone calls out as I help to maneuver a bottom heavy refrigerator down a flimsy flight of stairs in the failing light. “Watch your fingers,” Larry repeats, and I rearrange my grip on a small stove as it spills greasy bits of happier days onto my feet. We pack our car with boxes, bags, and small pieces of furniture and unload it at a relative’s house all before dawn. At least this family, still without a permanent home, has their belongings off the street. Back home I find sleep eludes me. Do I want coffee? Do I dare attempt to close my eyes again? I decide that a couple of beers in the afternoon heat offer better odds and spend most of the morning writing in my journal, trying to finish a poem, and wondering when the call to relocate last night’s refugees will come again.
On another occasion, a VISTA from the North side asks me to attend a Welfare Rights meeting. After a brief introduction to Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, I have the difficult task of helping them figure out how new state budget cuts will impact their lives. They sit quietly while I work the math. Mr. Thompson looks over my figures as I try to explain what the new law says and how it will affect their lives. Mrs. Thompson sits patiently, smiles politely at me but says nothing. They know their income will be reduced, but seeing the final figures brings deep sighs and new lines to their foreheads. Before me are the faces of people who depend on the same government that spends billions to wage war in Southeast Asia. The same government whose defense budget and space program waste more in an hour than they required for a lifetime. Ever the optimist, I try to couch this bad news in a hopeful wrapper. “Maybe in a few months, after the next election things will turn around.” We exchange polite smiles all around.
Later that night I feel something strange; anger, empathy, and fear swirl simultaneously through my brain. Am I seen as a helpful supporter or an agent of the same government that just claimed another chunk of this couple’s dignity?

Late September, 1969
It took the first two months to build our communications center. Late one morning, Larry returned home from running a few errands with a serious haircut. The fashionable long hairstyles on college campuses were always dicey in Texas. It was not uncommon for my housemates and I to be refused service in a restaurant because of our hair length. Usually, it took the form of no waitress coming to the table. After ten or fifteen long minutes we’d just get up and leave. Better to choose battles wisely. More than once taxi drivers would speed up just to yell, “Get that long hair out of the way.” Texans had little clue then that everyone from Merle Haggard to their own congressmen would wear their hair longer in the next few years. Till then, it was a liability. Larry figured his fund raising success might be hampered by hair length and chose to be the sacrificial lamb for the sake of the project.
After a quick shower, a clean shave (facial hair was also politically volatile) Larry put on a tie and headed off to NASA. When he returned, he called David and me into the “office” for an announcement. He had been successful. The same space program that had put a man on the moon a month earlier had a little contribution to make. No, not money, more like equipment and supplies. From NASA we received large rolls of photographic paper, (most outdated but perfectly usable) darkroom equipment and chemicals, and a smattering of standard office supplies. A few trips with the project’s one pick-up truck and we were in business. Larry knew that NASA could earn some good press by donating to a project that served people who stubbornly clung to the notion that the space program was at their expense. Within weeks, we had raised enough money for a couple of Gestetner copy machines and a state of the art electronic stencil cutter. Copy paper and ink often came from our own pockets.
When word spread that the VISTA Communications Center was open for business we started hearing from local groups. MAYO (Mexican-American Youth Organization needed flyers for a meeting. We delivered. VISTAS organizing for welfare rights requested a pamphlet; we promised something at the end of the week. The Communications Center was rapidly becoming an information clearinghouse as well. As summer yielded to fall, Carl Adams gave us a call. Adams was a native Houstonian who had spent the previous fifteen years traveling the world as a musician. A trumpet player, Adams had toured first with Ray Charles, and then in B.B. King’s band. With the birth of his third child in late 1968, Carl Adams had decided to remain in Houston indefinitely. Aside from wanting more involvement in raising his other two children, aged 5 and 10, Carl had a dream. It was called CUP, the Cultural Uplift Program. In the increasing Afro-centrist awareness of the late 60s, Carl believed that he could contribute to his community best by offering cultural awareness through music. He envisioned a series of community centers where children not only learned their musical heritage, they learned to make and play instruments as well. He figured if he could entice younger kids into learning how to make and play percussive instruments, he could also teach them the history of African music and their link to their own cultural identity. Going from homemade drums, rattles, and bells to brass and strings would be a natural progression. He was clear on the idea but needed help on getting support and promotion.
After a brief meeting with Carl, we decided to produce a brochure that would recruit funds and volunteers to make CUP a reality. Carl mentioned that he had a philosophical statement written out. A combination rationale and budget, he asked me to take a look at it in hopes his ideas could be used for the brochure. I spent a few days going over the sheaf of yellow legal-sized sheets. His heart was definitely there, but the writing was mostly illegible, the language wordy, and many of his ideas convoluted. Somehow, with help from Larry, we extracted the essence. Shortly after the pamphlet was completed, we accompanied Carl to a nearby church recreation room where a CUP workshop was scheduled. After making drums from tin cans, stretched pieces of inner tubes and rubber bands, the kids made more instruments from beans, gourds, bottle caps, and sticks. Although the trumpet was is meal ticket, Carl could play a few other instruments and soon found his way to an old piano sitting in the corner of the room. I don’t know which brought me more pleasure; the smile on the kids faces as music erupted, or the ear-to-ear grin filling Carl’s face.

Carl Adams/CUP workshop

Working with Carl was VISTA at its best. We were able to help jumpstart his dream. We remained friends over the next few
months organizing additional workshops or hearing more of Carl’s ideas. I loved talking about and listening to music with Carl. He knew quite a few people and often told me insider stories about his travels.
“Man I remember lots of times when we had to eat in the bus because some towns had laws against Black folks eating anywhere inside.” That’s OK, it made it easier to blow a little reefer after dinner”
“Where did you stay at night?” I’d ask.
“You know what, local people would take us in. Those early days on the ‘Chitlin Circuit’ we’d find a place to sleep with people who came out to the club that night. But the first time I went to Europe with Ray Charles’ band, we were treated like kings. First class hotels, great food, and the women, always hangin’ round. Some of the guys didn’t want to come back to the states. Every now and then one wouldn’t. They have always loved Rhythm and Blues overseas, funny how that is, isn’t it?”
Carl knew I loved the blues so it came as no surprise that he promised to introduce me to B.B. King if he ever came through Houston. That was just fine with me, but I eagerly settled for just hearing his wonderful record collection or his experiences playing with blues giants like King and Charles in Europe and Asia.
CUP struggled to attract supporters with deep pockets but Carl and I remained in touch. He’d invite David, Larry, and I over for a meal now and then just to catch up. My housemates were never without their cameras and often photographed Carl and his kids. The best of those photos they gave to the Adams family. Carl’s wife, Rosetta, was a strikingly beautiful woman who, when present, constantly seemed to be on his case. It was she who encouraged him to remain in Houston and give up the traveling part of his career. That was certainly understandable given they had 3 children all under 10 years of age. But there was something more, something that seemed to gnaw away at Carl. He’d indicated that his wife was into the supernatural, and had a trace of Louisiana Creole voodoo in her background. She certainly had Louisiana cooking down. The aroma of red beans and rice or a new batch of gumbo often filled their apartment.

Carl’s oldest and youngest

Carl and his baby
After a wonderful meal of barbeque, grits, and slaw one evening, Carl told me something that filled in the gaps.
“In March of 1968 I was on a European tour with B. and the band. I’d call Rosetta every few days. Right before I returned home, I called and she was really upset. She told me that the previous night she had a very disturbing dream. Man, she was really blown away.”
“Did she have disturbing dreams often,” I asked.

“Not really, but this was a nightmare because she dreamed that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed.”
Not only did she believe in the power of her dreams, she exhorted Carl to try to contact King’s entourage and dissuade him from going to Memphis, Tennessee where he planned to assist striking garbage workers.
“Nobody believes me Carl, she kept saying, you do don’t you baby? You gotta do something Carl. If you don’t it’ll be on your conscience the rest of your life.”
“How could she expect you to be responsible? It was her dream.
“What could I do, it was April 2nd, and King was shot two days later,” Carl said, holding back tears. “I don’t think she’s been the same since that phone call.”
I tried my best to relieve Carl of this burning guilt. He knew deep inside that there was very little he could do. I assured him that Martin Luther King would have gone to Memphis at any cost. Still, he brooded. I don’t doubt that Rosetta had that dream, but I’ve often wondered about their relationship, subsequent dreams and the strength of their relationship.
A few months later, I got a call from Carl about 7:00 pm one evening.
“Hey Bruce, Carl Adams. Hey man, B’s in town come on; can you pick me up in half an hour? I want you to meet him.” After my heartbeat returned to semi-normal, I had the presence of mind to make one phone call before picking up Carl. I called the editor of Houston’s first underground newspaper, Space City News. I knew some VISTAS working behind the scenes at this fledging alternative publication and I figured I could persuade them into a contribution at short notice.
“Hey listen, I’m going to interview B.B. King right now, do you want to use it? I’ll give you first crack at what I get.” They jumped at my offer. David loaded his Nikon, grabbed another lens, and agreed to meet up at the club in the Montrose area near Rice University. B.B. King was just beginning to enjoy crossover success in February of 1970 when he rolled through Houston. “The Thrill is Gone” was a huge hit and big things were in the works for the year ahead. I wanted to know all about his past and future, but how much could I get at this late notice? When we arrived and worked our way through the line to the front door of the club, Carl spoke to a security guard. We weren’t on any list. The mellow Carl Adams I knew was plenty pissed.
“Go get Sonny Freeman, he’s the drummer and leader of B’s band,” he barked. In seconds a small, well-groomed man appeared to greet Carl.
“Sonny,” Carl shouted, “This is my friend Bruce, we want to see B before the show begins. “
“Carl, my man,” Sonny said, “Right this way, B is in his dressing room.”
I realized immediately that those who knew him called Riley B. King, B, not BB. Sonny ushered us toward a door to the right of the stage. We entered and for the next 45 minutes everything went red. The room was carpeted and furnished all in red. Every light was red. Anything that wasn’t a shade of red soon turned one. The small room was filled easily filled with 20 people. In the middle stood the blues icon himself, a glass in one hand and a bottle of Old Grand Dad in the other. I’d entered a private party. Carl worked his way forward, made contact with B, and introduced me. When I asked for permission to interview, B obliged. Carl began to reminisce with other musicians in the room and left me on my own. Between my questions and his responses, B masterfully entertained his guests, sipping bourbon, kissing women, posing for photos, and taking my questions seriously. He told me how exciting it was for him to finally begin to get crossover acceptance. New venues were opening up; bigger record deals were in the works. He was even scheduled for an outdoor festival in California with the Rolling Stones. I worked fast; realizing that show time at the packed house could steal my opportunity any moment. There was one question that I needed to ask. I knew the answer, but a myth persisted and I wanted to get a response from the man himself. As blues music enjoyed a wider following, many people believed that two other musicians, whose last names were King were related to B.B. King. Finally I asked, “B, lots of folks still say that Albert Kind and Freddie King are your brothers? What’s the truth?” His instant response stands as a testament to the character of this blues legend. “Yeah, they’re my brothers all right,” (long pause, big smile) “Just like you are.”

B and Sonny on drums

I could hear the opening act through the door completing their set. The audience was courteous but they were there to see B.B. King. It must be difficult to open for a performer like King, I thought. But I’d heard the guys in the local band that opened that night were big fans of King and were just as excited to see his performance that evening.
Just about the time I ran out of questions, a well-dressed man circled behind B and, like a gust of wind produced his guitar. I came face to face with “Lucille.” In one motion, he handed the famous guitar to King who in turn took hold of his instrument and politely told me, “Excuse me, I got to go to work.” I followed Carl out the door. In less than 20 seconds, we sat in a short row of seats directly in front of the stage. No other empty seats remained. Somehow David appeared, camera in hand, and grabbed a seat. Before I could put my pen in my pocket I heard, “Everyday, everyday I have the blues.” B looked 10 feet tall on stage. With the first note he played, he entered another world. I don’t think I will ever see another performer interact with his audience the way he did.

B.B. King working with Lucille

What followed was a masterful set of new and old material. B took his fans back in time; calling off the year he recorded various favorites. His tight band knew when to forge ahead and when to let their engine idle. B’s face mirrored every emotion capable of being wrung from his music. When he sang, “The Thrill is gone,” the crowd erupted. Despite being a diverse group, it seemed to be predominately Black. Many women watched the entire show on their feet. The call and response between King and his audience was stunning. He not only worked the room, he worked those folks’ lives.
“Womens is just like a bus,” an enthralled admirer called out. “You miss one, you catch another.”
B nodded never missing note, closing his eyes and delivering the next verse:
I bought you a 10-dollar dinner; you said thanks for the snack,
I gave you a diamond ring; you said I want a Cadillac,
I let you live in my penthouse; you said it was just a shack,
I’ve been downhearted, ever since the day we met,
My life is nothing but the blues, people, how blue can you get?

In the months that followed, I thought of that evening many times. The festival that B.B. King played with the Stones turned out to be the tragedy of Altamont, where Hells Angel’s acting as security killed a person. The horror of that incident remains captured forever in the Rolling Stones song and film “Gimme Shelter.” Fortunately that dark spot on the large festivals of the era had no negative impact on King’s burgeoning career. His optimism that night was well founded and it’s safe to day he deserves the title “King of the Blues.” I didn’t need to be concerned with the local Texas blues trio who opened for B.B. King that night either. In the end, they turned out all right. In tribute to King, they chose a double consonant for their name too. 38 years and numerous Grammies later, Z.Z. Top are doing fine.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Chapter 3

Ready to move in. See the cat? She came with the house.
Above This Wall
c 2008 B. Greene

Chapter 3-Some New Neighbors
August 1969

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.

Mama Faith
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.
“No, What?”
“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