One of the Boys (a tale of two slides) December 29, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Autobiographical Essays (Roger), One of the Boys (a tale of two slides).
Tags: baseball, dodgers, father, irvington, irvington herald, little league, new jersey, reseda high school, roger hollander, sports
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(For my entire childhood, I don’t think there was anything as important to me as baseball, both as participant and spectator. Who would have thought that this sports crazy youngster would grow up to be a wild-eyed political radical?)
The Boys. The Boys. The Boys. Always the Boys. The Boys this. The Boys that. For Charlie his two boys were everything. There was no mistaking it. Everyone knew it. Everyone said so. My boys, he would say, and then off he would go with one tale or another of their myriad accomplishments. Charlie’s boys.
I was one of those boys.
When Charlie died, my daughter Malika spoke at a memorial held for him for the Toronto family and friends. She said that what was so wonderful about Grandpa was that every moment you were with him he made you feel that you were someone special. We boys surely knew that.
Of course, as much as it is a cliché, there is truth to the notion that everyone is someone special. The problem is that not enough of us feel that way, or are made to feel that way. Without being necessarily conscious of it, my parents made sure I knew that I was someone special. It never bothered me when big brother would tease me about being adopted (I wasn’t) or that they love me more than you, because it was so patently untrue. Mom and Dad always made me feel special, and I suppose it was because I was genuinely special to them. And with Charlie, so much of it was expressed, particularly in my childhood, in the context of our shared passion for sports.
Saturday mornings the three of us (Mom, a 1940/1950s housewife, naturally excluded) would open the sports page and, on a separate piece of paper, one of us would copy down in pencil the schedule of major college football games and add three columns: Charlie, Neil, Roger. Each one of us made our pick for who would win the game, which was duly noted in the appropriate column. Princeton over any Ivy League rival, of course. Those were Princeton’s glory days with triple threat tailback, Dick Kazmier. And only a dodo would pick against Army with Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard or Notre Dame with Johnny Latimer. Then, on Sunday mornings we two boys and Charlie would gather again around the sports page to tally the winners. This was before television had arrived in our home, and none of us had ever seen a college football game on the air, much less a real live game. Nonetheless, I seldom guessed less than three quarters of the winners and usually came out on top, this despite the fact that, with all the irrational loyalty of a diehard Brooklyn Dodger fan, I always picked the hapless Brooklyn College over whatever rival was sure to trounce them.
As a child, I was ahead of my time with respect to my own athletic ability. It just happened that sports enthusiasm resided in my brother’s circle of friends and not very much in my own. So I hung with Neil’s gang, kids two years older than me. Baseball was our métier. Because of good hand-eye coordination, I somehow kept up with the older guys as a hitter, if barely. I played right field or second base on our team, the Lancers, in the Irvington municipal league. Never was I trusted with a more strategic position like first or short. And I always batted ninth, even behind the pitcher, Jimmy DeWitt, who possessed a mean bat to go along with a sizzling fast ball.
In contrast, on those rare occasions that I played with my own peers, I was the star. It felt like swinging three bats (today the pros attach lead disks) while in the on-deck circle so that, when you came to the plate, your bat felt as buoyant as balsa wood against those soft lobs thrown up by pitchers my own age. Playing with the older kids was a weighty challenge that had made me feel as light as a feather when I played with my own kind. In the sixth grade, my class played softball at recess, and, for my drives over off the Augusta Street School chain-link fence into Ball Street (that was its name!), my first ever male teacher, Mr. Palmiotti, had dubbed me “the Bambino.”
My good hand-eye coordination and the honing effect of the age-stretch competition, more than made up for what was almost literally my Achilles heel: I ran as slow as a girl. Well not quite. But slower than just about anyone older or even my own age.
Speed, or rather the lack thereof, was responsible for the two shared stories that my father told at least a thousand times to anyone who would listen and to many who would have rather not. They are true stories, and while they may have gained a bit of artificial sheen from constant polishing over the years, the very fact that these things actually happened to me and were such a bond of love and friendship with my father makes them as precious to me as the most valuable diamond, an apt metaphor you will agree.
The Little League came to Irvington, New Jersey, in 1953, when I was in my twelfth year. It was a dream too good to be true. Uniforms. Team sponsors. Real managers and coaches (Charlie had managed the Lancers, and he did a good job; but having your father as the manager just didn’t feel like the real thing). Little League regulation ball fields that seemed like miniatures to me after the big league regulation sized fields of the municipal league. Box scores appearing in the Irvington Herald. And kids my own age or younger! From playing with fourteen year olds I would now be challenging kids as young as eight. It was to be my year of baseball glory.
At the Little League tryouts I naturally wowed the grown-ups, not only with my hitting and fielding, but also with my throwing arm, which had been only ordinary amongst the two-year-older gang, but which put me on a par with the best of the Little League. A mound whose distance was so short compared to what I was used to with the older kids, that I felt I could whiz the ball right through my catcher’s glove. I was given number 14 for my team, the Amvet Cardinals (sponsored by the “Amvets,” which stands for American Veterans; I was their first “draft pick”), which I was proud to wear along with one of my heroes, the great Dodger first baseman, Gil Hodges. 42 would have been better, but I knew that Jackie would understand.
I batted lead-off and pitched every game, with a 6-1 record, losing only to the White Sox, our major rival. No one kept track of my batting average, but I was the best hitter on the team and probably batted well over .400. Our Amvet Cards won the league, and I made the Irvington All-Star team that would compete in the inter-city play-offs that eventually lead to the Little League World Series in Westport, Connecticut.
Now I had come to this point in my baseball career with extensive preparation on the proverbial sandlot, stickball included, but this was supplemented by constant advice and instruction from my father. Keep your eye on the ball. Don’t look up when fielding a grounder. Two hands on a fly ball. When on base, always be thinking ahead of what you’re going to do in any possible circumstance. He taught me to bat. He taught me to field. And he taught me an esoteric manoeuvre on the base path that might make up some for my slowness.
My famous hook slide.
The Irvington Little League All-Stars’ first play-off game was against Livingston, on their ball field. I was the number three pitcher on the All-star team behind two of my seventh grade school mates, Arnie Willner, a diminutive right handed twelve year old who already knew how to throw a nasty curve, and Cliff Sermon, a big guy with a blazing fast ball but with control problems. Arnie was to start against Livingston, and I was in left field, hitting second in the line-up because of my prodigious bat.
Arnie was dominating on the mound that evening, and pitched a two-hit shut-out. The Livingston pitcher was just as effective. I got Irvington’s only hit of the game to spoil his no-hitter, a single up the middle in the fourth inning. At that point the score is tied at zip, and I am our team’s first and, it was to turn out, only base-runner. I don’t know what got into me. Maybe it was because in our league most of the catchers had pretty weak and inaccurate arms, and I had stolen my share of bases despite my snail-like speed. But this was against Livingston’s best. What was I thinking when I took off for second base on the very first pitch?
The pitch, a fastball down the middle, was a called strike, and the Livingston catcher made a perfect throw to second base. I was about ten feet from the bag with the ball waiting for me firmly ensconced in the Livingston shortstop’s mitt. It was one of those moments of truth in one’s life when disaster looms a split second away. There is no time to think. One acts out of some primordial instinct. One does what one subconsciously knows to do although one does not know he knows it. What everything in my life up to that time had prepared me for that life-defining moment.
I executed a perfect hook slide.
Doubt me if you will. It was filmed on 8 mm. so I have proof. Had, anyway (this was 1953, for God’s sake). It was the most graceful moment of my life, before or since. I am a rather clumsy guy, but that day you would have thought me a candidate for the Bolshoi. The hook slide Charlie had taught me is a combination of mental and physical deception. Eye contact with the short stop tells him that I am coming directly at him full force, hoping for a collision that will knock loose the ball from his glove. As he lowers his glove in front of the base for a sure tag out, I hit the ground sharply to my left (that is, towards the pitcher’s mound) so that my body is at a right angle to the base, with my right leg curved in a semi-circle dragging along the ground, eluding the glove and catching the southeast corner of the bag. A hook slide that was to go down in history (at least in our family).
What happened next was critical, if anti-climatic. I advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored the game’s only run on a ground out to second. Final score: Irvington 1, Livingston zero. I was a hero, and I thoroughly enjoyed the adulation of my team mates and their parents at the post-game celebration at the local Dairy Queen. Nonetheless, it was a character building lesson for me when the team manager later took me aside and told me that if I ever pulled a dumb stunt like that again – making an unauthorized attempt to steal a base in a close game – I would watch the rest of the play-offs from the bench. But no matter; in the long run it was the hook slide and not the stupidity of the attempt that everyone (at least in my family) would remember.
For the record, we were eliminated from the playoffs in our next game against Orange, where Cliff Sermon started on the mound for us, yielding walks to half the opposing team, followed by a couple of homers, thereby giving them an insurmountable lead in the first inning. I came in to relieve from left field to mop up in a losing cause.
I was a whiz at Math at Reseda High School in the San Fernando Valley, but when I got to Berkeley and faced world-class competition, I was cut down to size and had the wisdom to change majors. In like manner it was at Reseda High School, only three short years after my Little League glory days, where my baseball stardom came crashing to its inglorious conclusion. Whatever zip I had on my fastball was gone on a regulation sixty feet, six inches pitcher’s mound, and I never could learn to throw a curve. My hitting impressed no one, and my fielding was even worse. I tried out, but I didn’t even make the Reseda High B team.
Nevertheless, baseball remained my passion. There was no question about it being my destiny. Did not my beloved Dodgers follow me out to Los Angeles from the East coast (our family got there in late 1954, the Bums made it for the ’58 season)? Does anyone really believe this was mere coincidence?
I hung around parks and continued to play sandlot ball, participating in pick up games wherever I could find them. One fine bright sunny Southern California afternoon (excuse the redundancy), Charlie and I happened to be hanging out at Reseda Park to watch a league game when I was asked to fill for a team that was one player short. I believe it may have been American Legion ball; I knew some of the guys and they were of high school age. I was put in right field and slotted to bat ninth in the line-up. Naturally.
I came up to bat for the first time against a pitcher with a good if not overpowering fast ball. I cannot remember what the count was, but he served me up a fat one, straight and fast and right down the middle. I swung for the fences, as was my wont. Like a tennis racquet, a baseball bat (in those days, all bats were made of wood, no aluminum) has a sweet spot, right in the center of its circumference and about four fifths up from the handle. My Louisville Slugger met that buzzing fastball right on that delicious sweet spot, and it was by far the biggest blast of my entire baseball career. A high hard bombshell to left center, a fence clearer in any ballpark in any league.
But this was no regulation ball park, it was Reseda Park, and there was no outfield fence. Left field extended into a patch of eucalyptus trees and then out onto Victory Boulevard. I didn’t have to look to know that the ball had soared well over the left fielder’s head. It had home run written all over it. But there being no fence to clear, I had to run it out. I think that, drunk with overconfidence, I began a slow celebratory trot around the base path; but soon, at the insistent urging of my team mates, I began to hurry it up. My father says the ball rolled all the way into Victory Boulevard, well over four hundred feet plus from home plate. The left fielder, however, was much swifter afoot than I was. He ran the ball down, fielded it, and made his throw towards home plate. The short stop relayed it to the catcher.
The round trip from home plate to home plate consists of four 90 feet stretches, a total of 360 feet, or 120 yards. As I approached third base I was surprised to see my team mate who was coaching there give me the signal to hold up. Forget it. This was to be the greatest home run of all time, and there was no way I was going to let the longest drive ever hit at Reseda Park result in a mere triple. I rounded third and headed for home.
The opposing team’s catcher that day was Joe Castellano, Reseda High’s second string backstop, a short muscular Paisan with varsity experience, and this, unfortunately, included knowledge of how to block home plate from an incoming base runner.
Alas, unbeknownst to me until that second pivotal moment in my life, a hook slide is of absolutely no value coming into home with a catcher blocking the plate. It was a closer play than at Livingston, but I was nonetheless clearly going to be tagged out as I attempted to elude Joe’s tag. The only effect the hook slide had was to put my head instead of my feet in the path of his hands, a costly mistake. I cannot say whether Joe had the ball in his hand or whether he conked me on the head with his glove. But it was a world-class tag, and it knocked me unconscious.
I was “out” in more than one sense of the word.
Since that fateful day in the summer of 1957, I have driven past that park maybe a hundred times, often in the company of my father. No one who has ever had the (dubious) privilege of riding in our car at such a moment has gotten away without hearing about the “shot heard round the world,” second only to Bobby Thompson’s Devil-inspired grand-slam homer in the seventh game of the 1954 National League Playoffs against my beloved Dodgers. When my father told the story, his focus was always on the gigantic blast that had come off my bat and not the eventual tragedy of the outcome. Only privately did he once confide to me that he had been worried sick at the time about my being knocked silly.
I don’t buy that hogwash about baseball being a metaphor for what America is. It was just a coincidence that baseball was the center of my life as a child and thereby an apt medium for creating a bond with my father that I will always treasure. I don’t think my father was ever as passionate about baseball as I was – I can still give you the starting line-up of those amazing 1950’s Dodgers: Campy behind the plate, Hodges on first, Jackie Robinson on second, Peewee Reese, team captain, at short, Carl Furillo, the old rifle arm in right, the Duke (Snider) in center, left field was always up for grabs: Hermanski, Pafko, Cal Abrams, among others; and the greats on the mound: Ralph Branca (the team owner’s son-in-law, whose name will live forever in infamy for that one pitch he served up to Bobby Thompson), Carl Erskine, Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe; Koufax and Drysdale were to come later. But because it was my passion, it was also my father’s.
Well, there you have it. Two childhood incidents indelibly forged in memory that has absolutely no significance outside of a small circle of family and friends; and, even there, of dubious note. I myself, in fact, probably would have pretty much forgotten them had they not been woven over the years into a narrative tapestry of comradeship and heroism between me and a loving father.
Now this love was not mine to enjoy exclusively. My brother, who connected with Charlie through their shared passion for fishing, amongst others, has similar tales to tell. Neil’s one and only lifetime poetic moment, as a teen-ager he set to verse his passion for the enterprise and entitled it “Trout.” Although, in my humble opinion, not quite as compelling as my hook slides, the poem has parallel standing our family iconography.
In no other area of my life – in work, in political office, in social situations – has it been my bent to aspire towards male bonding, towards being considered “one of the boys.”
But at home, as on the base path, there was no greater honor.
I Remember Mama December 29, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Autobiographical Essays (Roger), I Remember Mama.
Tags: anne hollander, autobiography, coney island, elkton maryland, irvington, mother, new jersey, newark, parachute ride, reseda, roger hollander, sophie's choice, styron
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Don’t bother to look her up on Google. The only Google she knew would have been “Barney Google with the Goo Goo Googley Eyes.” Nevertheless, the memory of her magnificent life perforates my grief at her loss and compels me to express this public remembrance.
She was born on Christmas Day, 1912. When her own mother became permanently incapacitated she had to drop out of the sixth grade at the age of twelve in Newark, New Jersey in order to become the “homemaker” for a tyrannical old-country father and her four brothers, three of them younger. She eloped to Elkton, Maryland (the “Reno of the East” at that time) on New Year’s Eve, 1933 at the age of twenty-one, as much to escape her quasi-feudal home life as for the love of a man whom she had only recently met; but something was right, for her marriage to my father lasted nearly seventy years.
Is it significant that with a fifth grade education she became an active leader and president of the local PTA in Irvington, New Jersey? Does it mean anything that in the “pre-feminist” forties and fifties she taught me to sew and knit and cook? Is there something special about the fact that, when my school project on the Netherlands had the sixth grade boys making wooden figures in Wood Shop and the girls Dutch dolls out of old stockings in Home Ec., she marched into the principal’s office at Augusta Street School to successfully advocate for my wish to make a doll along with the girls? (I slept securely with little Dutch “Jan” into my early adolescence)
I know that I am not the first nor will I be the last person with a desire to publicly eulogize a beloved parent who may not possess any of the standard claims to fame. Call me quixotic, but I honestly believe that my mother, Anne Korabiak Hollander, merits a posthumous moment of sublime recognition. She was extraordinarily extraordinary despite the absence of a claim in her lifetime even to those iconic fifteen minutes. Beyond what she has meant to myself and my brother, to her four grandchildren (two professors at state universities, the others a freelance journalist and a professional musician) and nine great grandchildren; her grace, her absolute absence of malice, her generosity of spirit, her purity of heart, and a simple and wholesome loving nature sets her apart from anyone else I have ever known. In her last years, despite debilitating chronic illness and a deep feeling of loneliness from being separated from most of her family, scattered around the globe, in assisted living at Garden Creek in San Luis Obispo and finally at the Masonic Village Nursing Home in Pennsylvania, her winning smile and cheerful attitude brought solace and comfort to all those around her, staff as well as fellow patients. She was universally adored, loved and respected. If that is not worthy of some sort of special recognition, I don’t know what is.
It must have been sometime in the late 1940’s that our family spent the day at Coney Island. I have two distinct memories of that day: Nathan’s “world famous” hot dogs and the Parachute Jump ride. I was fearless in those days, and no amount of bribery or cajolery sufficed to convince me to pass up the big jump. William Styron in Sophie’s Choice recounts Sophie’s delight in that very same parachute jump ride that is eerily akin to my own. The ride was a relic of the 1939 World’s Fair and 200 feet in high. My memory insists that it was at 500. In any case, there was no question that I would not be allowed to take the big plunge all by myself. The problem was that the male members of the group, my father and my older brother, politely yet firmly begged off. That left my mother, who, concealing the terror that any sane adult would have at such folly, agreed to be my companion for the big dive in the sky.
It began with a slow rise to a height of nearly two football fields (I’m sticking with my version of the height, for, even if my memory is not literally accurate in the mathematical sense, taking into account my age and size, the thing subjectively was higher than the Empire State Building). The first part of the drop was actual, literal free-fall. I cannot remember the formula for acceleration that I later learned in high school Physics, but I can tell you that we were dropping pretty damn fast, and, of course, this being my virgin plunge, I had no idea if or how the free-fall was ever going to somehow abate and thereby prevent an inevitable and fatal crash onto the boardwalk below. When the cable did catch and we floated to the bottom, I think I had come as close as it is possible to experience death and re-birth. And there, with my mother, Anne Korabiak Hollander, faithfully, loyally, lovingly – and shaking like a leaf – at my side.
When in 1987 I was considering a major change in my life by moving from Toronto to Ecuador, I consulted with both my daughters, my brother and my parents for their opinion. This involved travel to Pittsburgh and California. In Reseda California, at the home which my parents had purchased in 1955 and where they completed their nearly 70 years of companionship, I spoke of my plans with my father and mother. They had always supported me in any situation, many of them difficult (thankfully, for only a short time, I became an insufferably aggressive evangelical Christian and nearly drove my parents crazy with my obnoxious if sincere efforts to save them from eternal perdition; then as an undergraduate I morphed into a student radical and elicited an irate public response from Clark Kerr, renowned President of the University of California, when as a member of the Student Council I vigorously challenged his restrictive policies with respect to on-campus speech, and my parents were certain I was going to be expelled; finally, I created considerable anxiety for them by violating the Selective Service Act and exiling myself to Canada in 1968 in protest of the Vietnam War, at which time, when the F.B.I. came around enquiring about me, my parents politely told them to get lost. It is worth noting that my father worked in the sensitive aerospace industry at the time).
On that day in late 1994 when I solicited their opinion on my planned move to Ecuador, my father’s face, in spite of his supportive words, showed concern and disappointment about my decision to locate so far from “home.” Perfectly understandable. My mother, on the other hand, didn’t miss a beat in saying, “Roger, I believe in doing your own thing.” I had never heard this kind of language before from my mother, and my immediate response was, “Mother, you sound like a Hippie.” Again, without missing a beat she came back with, “Roger, I am a Hippie.” She would have been 81 years of age at the time.
For reasons of which I doubt she was ever consciously aware, my mother fostered and nurtured the feminine in me (in counterpoint to my Boy Scout and sports activities, which was my father’s bailiwick), and for this I am forever grateful. Because both of circumstance and the time in which she lived, she never had the chance to fully “march to the tune of her own drummer,” to explore and to bring to realization the greater part of her enormous potential, but she came as close to it as she possibly could, never once whining or complaining; and she passed on that priceless gift to my brother and to me.
I am not unaware that there are millions of women around the world whose heroism is expressed daily through slavish housework, profound personal sacrifice of their own comfort and well-being and constant worrying for the feeding and protection of their children and other family and loved ones. Every one is special, no more or no less than my mother.
But having been privileged to have been her son, naturally, I remember Mama.
My mother, Anne Korabiak Hollander, passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94 in Sewickley, Pennsylvania in the first hour of Saturday, April 14, 2007.
Charlie and Me December 29, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Autobiographical Essays (Roger), Charlie and Me.
Tags: autobiography, berkeley, Canada, childbirth, city government, clark kerr, conscientious objection, david harris, dow chemical, goldwater, irvington, jfk, julian wedgwod, lbj, mcnamara, montreal, NDP, new jersey, newark, quebec, resistance, rusk, san fernando valley, toronto, toronto council, uphs, Vietnam War
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(I think I can say honestly that I loved both my parents equally, and I believe that their influence on my life and character was equal as well. However it was Charlie, intellectually and politically oriented like myself, who could both inspire me and get under my skin. He was clearly a less secure individual than my mother, and I don’t think I ever achieved anything of any significance whatsoever without thinking about how it would please my father. I cannot vouch for all the historical facts in the “story” that follows, especially with reference to the year 1941. What I know about the events of January 26/27, 1941 are all hearsay, my having been minus one day old at the time; but I was young then and had a good ear.)
Hitler’s armies are in control of most of Western Europe, and the Japanese military is cooking up a secret plan to attack the main US naval base in Hawaii, which will represent a daring move to demolish in a single blow America’s capacity to wage war in the Pacific. It is January 26, 1941, and it has just begun to snow in Newark, New Jersey.
At about 8:30 PM, Charles Hollander leaves the grocery store that is owned and operated by his cousin Morris where he earns the ten dollars a week that supports him, his wife, Anne, and their two year old son Neil. He steps out onto Springfield Avenue and decides that the storm is not so bad that he cannot save five cents by walking to their Jacob Street flat instead of taking the bus. Then he stops for a moment for a second thought. He gives himself a mental kick in the pants for thinking of saving a nickel when his wife is in her ninth month and due at any moment. He catches the first number five that passes going east and heads for home.
Charlie, as he is known to just about everyone, was “political” in his youth. He presided over a reform-oriented Democratic “Club” whose political hero and inspiration was Jersey’s own Woodrow Wilson. With his quick mind and law school background Charlie was considered by many to be an up and comer. Instead, he chose to buck the party establishment by joining a reform ticket that opposed the party bosses in a primary election for the State Assembly. To the injury of a losing campaign was added the insult of being blackballed from the party’s patronage (including WPA jobs). For good.
Despite the sudden and rude termination of his dream for a career in party politics, Charlie had no lasting regrets. For it was through his political involvement that he became good buddies with Max Korabiak, the husky son of a Ukrainian immigrant, who drove a truck making deliveries for his father’s burgeoning ice and coal business. Ice boxes (before refrigerators could be found in most homes) demanded to be kept ice cold in the summer, and furnaces consumed tons of coal in the winter. Max was proud and ambitious, and a later business failure was to lead to what in those enlightened times was called a “nervous breakdown.” Max ended up spending the rest of his adult life wheeling and dealing and outliving several generations of attendant staff at the same State Hospital for the Mentally Ill in upstate Overbrook, where he also was able to look after the well-being of his mother, Sadie, who had been confined several years before with the same amorphous diagnosis and where she also made her home until her very last days.
At one of their Democratic Club’s annual dances, Max had introduced Charlie to his younger sister, Anne; and though both Anne and Charlie had arrived at the dance with their own dates, they left together. It was but a few weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, 1933, that Charlie borrowed his friend S. Donald “Red” Rappaport’s Model A Ford and eloped with Anne to the poor man’s Niagara Falls: Elkton, Maryland. Red came along as a witness.
Whether Anne’s hard working old world style tyrannical father, William “Bill” (neé Vasily) Korabiak, had no use for Charlie because he was poor or because he was Jewish is hard to say. Probably a little of both. Upon their return from Elkton – it had been an overnight trip and they were back in time for the New Year’s Day party at the Korabiak home cum ice dock cum coal bin on Hunterdon Street, with no one being any the wiser about their new marital status – Anne continued to keep house and raise her three younger brothers (as she had done since she had “dropped out” of the sixth grade when her mother left the home for good) until Charlie could save up enough cash to rent the Jacob Street flat. When months later she finally broke the news to her father and took leave for good, old Mister Korabiak now had another reason to hate Charlie, one that hit much closer to home. Charlie had, in effect, signed Anne’s Emancipation Proclamation, thereby causing Bill the net loss of one full time domestic indentured servant.
Charlie arrives at the Jacob Street flat shortly after 9:00 PM. He is exhausted, for his day at the grocery store is long and tedious, and the walk from the bus stop to the house is all uphill, but he is relieved to find everything ship shape. Little Neil is crying, but what else is new. After grabbing a quick supper – Anne had already eaten – Charlie will now have to take over the seemingly endless task of getting the baby to sleep so that Anne can rest. He says a silent and secular – for the religious part of his Judaism really never took root – prayer that the new baby will be a quieter one. The law of averages, he thinks to himself, has got to be in our side on that score. Charlie tries to put out of his mind the fact that once the recalcitrant Neil decides to trade weep for sleep, his kitchen duties – in the form of a sink full of dirty dishes and a hamper full of soiled diapers – await his attention. His responsibility for these kinds of chores goes back beyond Anne’s pregnancy. Having escaped from one slave master, she was not about to replace him with another, albeit a younger and more handsome one. She was a grade six drop out, and the new wave of feminism was decades away from raising its unruly head, but Anne was ahead of her time. Charlie was expected to pull some of the domestic weight.
As he sleepwalks through the dishes, Charlie’s mind drifts back to that last visit to Dr. Hautman’s office. Hautman, a tall, dark haired handsome man, a half-generation older than Charlie, was a general practitioner, that’s about all there was in those days. He charged only what you could afford, gave you all the time you needed, both in the examining room and with making payment. He never sent a bill, and he never considered making house calls anything other than part of his job.
While Anne would be getting dressed in the doctor’s examining room, he and Charlie are talking about the war that day in the front office. Two peace loving Jewish men agonizing over what seemed to be the inevitability despite Roosevelt’s apparent hesitancy of their country once again getting sucked into the middle of another European conflagration. Although Hitler’s attitude toward Jews was well known by then, no one could have imagined the atrocities that were to follow, so it was not that unusual that many American Jews were blasé about getting involved. Neither Charlie nor the good doctor would have considered themselves “isolationists,” yet both men were cynical about what would be achieved by fighting another World War.
“They said the last one was the ‘war to end all wars,’” the doctor reminded Charlie who had mentioned that he was starting to see no way the U.S. could not get involved again, “I don’t know about you, Charlie, but why is it that the big shots always call the tune, and it’s the young kids that go over and get shot at? Sure Hitler’s a maniac, but who drove the Germans into his arms with the impossible reparations debt from the war? Wilson tried with the League of Nations and where did it get him? I’ve got two boys a lot closer to fighting age than your little Neil. Those boys mean everything to me and Sarah, and I’ll be damned if I want to see them sent five thousand miles to die on foreign soil.”
Charlie nodded agreement. “When will the fools that run this world ever learn, when will they ever learn?” he added, shaking his head.
Charlie had completed training with the Civilian Military Training Corps (CMTC), a sort of non-academic R.O.T.C. for civilians, and when called up would enter the army as a second lieutenant (unbeknownst to him at the time, however, he would never see active duty due to a bone deformity that caused him to fail his physical when he finally tried to enlist).
“Charlie, I want you to know something. If somehow we get dragged into this thing, and when you are called up, I don’t want you to be worried about Anne and the kids. I will take care to make sure they are in fine health when you get back, and you can take that to the bank. And don’t worry about money, O.K.? Right now everything is as it should be with Anne. The baby’s gong to be as big and healthy as the last one. She could be popping out any day now. You understand what I’m telling you? I’m counting on it being a girl.”
Here is how I became a city councilor.
For years I had resisted the temptation to run for political office in Toronto. I was in my seventh year as Executive Director of the now legendary 519 Church Street Community Center, and I won’t deny that I wasn’t at times restless for a change. But I had plenty to keep me happy right where I was. I had had the opportunity to take a lead role in the development of City of Toronto policy toward city funded but independently run community centers, and therefore to a certain extent I knew my way around City Hall. Of late, in reaction to the Mulroney Conservative government’s cuts and privatization of the student summer employment programs that had been initiated in the Trudeau era, which had a profoundly negative effect on the ability of non-profit organizations to provide a wide range of community and social services over the summer, I had helped to organize and was national coordinator of the Save our Summer Coalition (S.OS.).
Since emigrating to Canada in the summer of 1968 to avoid up to five years in a federal prison for my anti-Vietnam war activities, I had slowly gotten my feet back into the waters of political activism; and, since 1980 when I took the position at The 519, I was even drawing a decent salary, thanks in part to my friend Anna Furstenberg’s having convinced me that it is possible “to do well while doing good.” It was not quite the same as the street level political activism I had known in Southern California. There I had been involved in helping to support the United Farm Workers, under Cesar Chavez, by organizing boycotts of non-union grapes and wine; I had gotten involved with the Black community in various Civil Right demonstrations and projects; and, of course, was involved in a wide range of anti-Vietnam War activities, including the picketing of local draft boards and military installations, demonstrating against Dow Chemical, the maker of the horrendous napalm bombs that was eating flesh of thousands of innocent Vietnamese civilians, and organizing and participating in teach-in and sit-ins at various campuses.
I had spent several frustrating years involved with the Democratic Party. Although my inclination, which had taken root in my student years at Berkeley (1958-1962), was for direct action of the street variety, until the revolutionary gusts that swept the nation beginning in the mid-sixties, it seemed as if the Democrats were the only game in town for progressive political activists. The final straw for me, however, came shortly after the 1964 presidential elections, where I had poured heart and soul into the campaign to elect “peace candidate” Lyndon Johnson in an Armageddon like battle against the war-mongering Barry Goldwater. It was Johnson, of course, who, once elected, proceeded to escalate US involvement in Vietnam that lead eventually to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides and expansion of the conflict into Cambodia and Laos.
After leaving the Democratic Party, I had studied, adopted, then rejected anarchism and was beginning to become interested in the Marxist-Humanist movement founded by Raya Dunayevskaya. When I got to Canada and learned that there was a third party — a socialist party! – I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It wasn’t long, however, before I discovered that the New Democratic Party (NDP) had pretty much abandoned its socialist CCF roots. It was socialist in name only, it was no longer looking to transform but rather to reform. I soon saw the logic of whoever it was who had characterized the NDP as nothing more than “Liberals in a hurry” — that is, reformers with no desire to remake a system that was structurally flawed.
So, although I was under no illusions, and although I did not choose to join the Party, I could not deny, especially since I was directly involved via my work at the community center with city government, that on neighborhood-based issues, it was generally the NDP that could be counted on for support, both with respect to policy and practical assistance. I therefore was quite willing to actively back NDP candidates in the old Ward 6 where I worked and especially in Ward 7 where I lived. In so doing, I got to know, became friendly with, and worked side by side with a number of NDP grass roots activists as well as elected city councillors.
Nevertheless, when John Piper jogged into my office at The 519 at lunchtime one afternoon, and those who know John will know that I mean that literally, I outright rejected his suggestion that I seek to become the NDP candidate in the Ward 7 by-election to replace Joanne Campbell, who had resigned to accept an appointment from the Provincial Liberal government. Joanne, a life-long New Democrat representing a Ward with a twenty year tradition of sending hard-working progressives to City Hall, had become somewhat of a controversial figure several months prior to her resignation when she announced that she would no longer participate in the NDP caucus at City Council but rather would sit as an “independent”. Many Torontonians are under the illusion that party politics do not apply at the city level since the Liberals and Conservatives do not run under the party banner but rather call themselves “independents.” However, a true independent at city council is as rare as a true idealist, and the same Liberal and Conservative organizations that support provincial and federal candidates are mobilized for the city level campaigns (in fact, city council has always served as the “minor leagues” for many a future Liberal and Conservative member of the provincial and federal parliaments). The NDP, on the other hand, openly and formally nominates candidates who, when elected, participate in a caucus, albeit without the discipline that is exercised at the senior levels of government.
A couple of weeks before John’s appearance at my office, I had received a phone call from Joanne’s assistant at City Hall, Jeff Evanson, to inform me that Joanne would be resigning the next day, that he would be running in the by-election to fill the vacancy, and could he count on my support. He neglected to mention to me that he would be running as an “independent” with the active, if clandestine, backing of the Liberal Party (who found him a Provincial job after losing the election). Oblivious to the impossible to conceive of at the time fact that I would be Jeff’s opponent in that election, and although I assumed he would probably win the NDP nomination and get my eventual support, I told him (assuming that he was asking for my support for the NDP nomination) that I could not offer my public support until I knew who all the candidates were. It had always bugged the hell out of me that so many people gave their public endorsements based upon the first person to ask for it; and I later came to find out as a city councilor that this was also the case amongst councilors when lobbying their colleagues for support for a particular council vote or appointment. So much for principle in politics.
In any case, since I had long ago decided that it would be against my principles to be an NDP candidate for anything, it didn’t take any real consideration on my part to reject Piper’s suggestion. John Piper is that unusual combination of intellectual and jock. He is one of the most persistent and persuasive persons you will ever want to meet, or not want to, as the case may be. He filled me in on what an Evanson victory would mean for Ward 7, that is, nothing less than a Liberal coup d’etat. He told me that the NDP needed to come up with a strong candidate fast (this was June and the by-election was to be held in November), and that he was only asking me to participate as a candidate in the nominating process to help develop a strong field of candidates. He showed me a list of people who were considering entering the race for the nomination, including the Labor Council’s Linda Torney, a person for whom I had and have tremendous respect.
Our meeting ended up with my withdrawal of an outright rejection in favor of my agreeing to at least consider the possibility. This was a major step for me, one that showed that I was not immune to setting principle aside when it came to realizing a practical strategic objective, in this case, not letting the Liberals get away with the sleazy and dishonest attempt to “steal” Ward 7 with their “independent” candidate.
After consulting with family, friends and confidants, I decided I would take the plunge. Since I would be running, if nominated, not simply to carry the NDP banner but rather to stop Jeff Evanson, i.e., actually to win; once I made the fateful decision, I put every ounce of my energy into it. When it became finally known who would be seeking the NDP nomination, it became clear both to me and to the Ward 7 NDP executive, that because of my history of community involvement I was the only one with a chance, albeit an outside one (given Evanson’s virtual “incumbency” and head start), to actually win the seat (Linda Torney had decided not to seek the nomination).
Although I freely admit, and did so at the time, that my decision to join the NDP and run for a city council seat as an NDP candidate was a compromise with a previously held principled position, I was determined that when it came to issues and matters of policy, the NDP was going to have to live with my political radicalism and independence of thought, which was not negotiable. Since there is no policy “platform” and no disciplined caucus at the city level, it seemed to me that I could do this without deceiving either the Party, the electorate or myself. But could the NDP live with me?
I met with the members of the local executive informally. Piper had been their emissary, and although they were prevented from making a formal endorsement, they wanted to give behind the scenes encouragement to the person they considered to be the strongest candidate for the nomination. A couple of the members of the executive were excited to have an unabashedly “left” candidate, others were glad just to find someone who had a bit more than a hope in hell to beat Jeff Evanson. Everyone was worried about my past radicalism, especially since I made it, as that intellectual giant Richard Nixon would say, “perfectly clear” that I did not intend to move one inch closer to the NDP mainstream from where I stood about six and a half miles to its left. “Is it true that you were a draft dodger,” I was asked. “No,” I replied – sighs of relief all around – “actually I was more like a deserter.”
Largely through the efforts of a few dedicated friends and associates and the amazing organizational efforts of my then wife, Cathy Crowe, I won the nomination with a comfortable margin, even though one of the other candidates, University of Toronto campus chaplain Eilert Freirichs, gave a speech at the nominating meeting that was ten times better than my own. With the nomination in hand, in the general by-election it was me against Jeff Evanson and a handful of fringe candidates with no organizational backing (including an ex-landlord of mine and a drag queen).
The campaign was one of the most salient experiences of my life. I don’t think I ever worker harder over a sustained period of time. Because of what Jeff had done in using his NDP job as a springboard to running as an “independent”, secretly supported by the Liberals, against an NDP nominated candidate, the race took on the aura of internecine warfare. Many NDP supporters had no idea of what Jeff had done and gave him their support believing that he was going to be like Joanne, a more independent minded NDP’er. Although I had years of community organizing and he had basically done only party work, Jeff was now the “community” candidate and I was the “party hack.” Oh, sweet irony. Former NDP allies were now on opposite sides of the fence, and life long friendships were strained (Piper, for example, had grown up with Joanne Campbell and is best friends with her and her husband, ex-NDP councilor Gordon Cressy; the friendship weathered the storm; the first thing I did when I won the election was to work to mend fences; Ron Kaplansky, a graphic designer who did Evanson’s campaign sign and literature designs, is now a good friend of mine; Jeff, however, did not give me the traditional courtesy of conceding defeat on election night).
We had a hell of a lot of ground to make up. We spent tons of money to hire the best NDP organizers available (the debt incurred remains unpaid to this day). Piper served as interim Campaign Manager until we were able to bring on the incomparable Sherril Game; a future Provincial Consumer Affairs Minister in the Rae government, Marilyn Churley, was the campaign secretary. Piper, who was later to become Ontario Premier Bob Rae’s public relations director and was subsequently forced to resign in disgrace when he made a serious tactical error in an attempt to protect a Cabinet Minister who had been falsely accused of sexual abuse, designed an unbeatable campaign strategy, but one that would only work if there was enough time.
I won by 222 votes. If the campaign had lasted another week, I think I would have won by 2000. We had a lot to overcome, but we had all the momentum. Victory, to use a cliché, was sweet. The first thing I did, of course, upon being confirmed as the winner, was to phone my dad with the good news.
You know, my father had been in politics for a short time in his youth. He too was something of a maverick. He had been President of a Democratic Party “Club” and had unsuccessfully bucked the Party establishment, which cost him any chance of further advancement. He was never nearly as radical in his beliefs as I am, but much of what I have learned about principled behavior in politics I have learned from him, more from his actions than his stated beliefs. It’s funny for me to say this, because my father is always preaching pragmatism to me. “You have to stoop to conquer,” is one of his favorite sayings.
My father graduated from Mercer Beasley School of Law in Newark (long since, I believe, absorbed into Rutgers University) but never practiced law. For some reason, after his first unsuccessful attempt at passing the New Jersey bar, he lost heart. He had lost both his parents before he was twenty, and in his teens took off riding the rails hobo style to California, where, had he been a little more shrewd, would have landed a bit part in a John Wayne movie. His ultimate destination was Japan, which he never made. After losing his one and only election and his betrayal of the party bosses, he dropped out of political activism never to return. He remains more or less progressive in his outlook, and I am sure he never voted Republican. Maybe because of being so seriously burned when he ventured outside the boundaries of the established order of the world where he thought he saw his future (i.e., the New Jersey Democratic Party), he became a strong advocate of “working within the system.” He could never fully endorse my decisions to work outside the system, although at some level I know he understands my uncompromising idealism and my “impractical” obsession with principle.
Although my Dad left politics for good after his defeat, he kept in touch with some of his old buddies, one of whom, Isaiah “Ike” Turner, was the first Black elected to Newark’s city council. How many times has he told me the (possibly Apocryphal) following story about Ike’s first council meeting: It would goes without saying that the white incumbents were not apt to give a cordial welcome to this “uppity Nigger” who dared to think he had a right to elected office. So how does old Ike deal with the cold shoulder he receives when he takes his place at his very first council meeting? He introduces a motion to give members of council a significant raise in pay (something that almost all politicians lust after but have to be careful about proposing). The motion passes unanimously, and from that day forward Isaiah “Ike” Turner is one of the boys.
Would you like to know what I did at my first council meeting?
In Council procedures there is something called an “Order Paper motion” which any member of Council can put on the Council agenda in order to get an issue directly before the Council. It is used when there is no time to follow the normal laborious committee process on a particular matter of urgency; or – and this is what I often found advantageous — when there would be no hope to get a recommendation passed by a committee and put before the Council (Council committees are notorious for killing controversial initiatives before they can reach the Council as a whole for debate).
At my first Council meeting I put a motion on the Order Paper to the effect that the Council declare Toronto a “disaster area” with respect to the problem of homelessness and request immediate emergency assistance from the provincial and federal governments. Order Paper motions are debated after the Council has disposed with all its committee vetted business, so that it was late in the evening when it came up, and the members were tired and grouchy. Those who did not consider my motion a scandal treated it as a joke. I was made fun of and ridiculed – who is this rookie councilor with this screwball motion? Nevertheless, the Council was forced to take its collective head out of the sand, and a two-hour debate, the first of its kind, took place in Council chambers on the city’s crisis in housing. Needless to say, the motion did not carry. The vote was something like 35-4. Not even all my NDP colleagues voted for it.
The Ghost of Ike Turner was not pleased, and I never became one of the boys.
(Twelve years later, in response to the tireless organizing and lobbying by Cathy Crowe and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, the Toronto City Council, and then municipal council’s across Canada, passed similar motions, calling for federal intervention in the housing crisis.)
And yet, despite the fact I was not prone to follow in the hallowed footprints left by Ike Turner’s fancy footwork in the council chambers of Newark, New Jersey, no one was more proud of me for my seven years as perpetual outsider and a constant thorn in the side of Toronto Council …than my dad.
I first became seriously aware of the US involvement in Vietnam while I spent the summer months of 1964 as an intern at the National Council of Churches’ (NCC) Washington, D.C. office on Maryland Avenue, a hop, skip and jump from the Capitol building. In many ways it was an idyllic summer for me. We house-sat for a wealthy union bureaucrat in his posh mansion off of Connecticut Avenue, sharing it with Djawah, an Indonesian graduate student. Linda and I were at that time in our second year of marriage and still childless. She had landed a summer job in the State Department. We were invited to attend the celebration for the independence of Malawi, and I danced with Miriam Makeba. During the day, I mostly hung out in the Capitol building drifting from committee room to committee room. I had virtually no responsibilities as an intern; there was no supervision to speak of. I saw liberal Senator Yarborough from Texas get into a near fist-fight with ultra-conservative Strom Thurmond outside a Senate hearing room.
In another hearing room I heard some strange phrases I didn’t fully understand: “military advisors, limited engagement … dominos”. It was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee discussing the country’s involvement in a small country in Southeast Asia, a former French colony that almost nobody had ever heard of, where some kind of a civil war was going on that for some strange reason former Presidents and the current president, Lyndon Johnson had been worried about enough to send United States soldiers, excuse me, advisors, over to help out the good guys in the south but in a “non-combatant” capacity.
This was just before the war between the Viet Cong and the corrupt South Vietnam puppet regime had entered into the consciousness of the average American, but mountains of information passed through the NCC Washington office including some disturbing criticism of U.S. intervention in Vietnam by apparently well-informed critics. Although Civil Rights was foremost on my and almost everyone else’s mind that fateful summer (the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 was before the Congress, and Linda and I spent as much time as we could at the twenty-four hour prayer vigil in front of the White House), I decided to follow up on what had been suggested by the Vietnam critics and began to look for more information about a war in a country that I had not previously known existed.
At summer’s end, having made my decision, after one year of graduate studies in theology (at Princeton Theological Seminary), to become a theological seminary drop-out, Linda and I went back to Southern California, and I resumed teaching at a Lutheran private school where I had previously taught for a year after my graduation from Berkeley. While in Washington I had introduced myself to Jim Corman, a young progressive/liberal Democrat who represented the 22nd Congressional District in California where we would be taking up residence. I was impressed with him and accepted his request that I work as a volunteer in his campaign for re-election in the November elections. However, it was not the congressional races that were front and center in that election.
In San Francisco’s Cow Palace earlier in the year, what many considered to be the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party had gained control of the convention and nominated as there presidential candidate the right-wing “extremist” ideologue, Barry Goldwater (who in today’s Republican Party would fall somewhere well left of center!). “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he intoned. The Republican theme was “In your heart, you know he’s right,” In my heart I knew he was wrong! You have to remember that this was in the middle of the Cold War, and to my thinking putting the nuclear trigger in the hands of an avowed Hawk was to risk the very survival of the planet. Most of the nation agreed, and, thanks to some pretty nifty television scare commercials connecting Goldwater with nuclear holocaust, Lyndon Johnson was re-elected in a landslide.
What also slid, however, was Johnson’s commitment to keep the peace. When he assumed the presidency following the Kennedy assassination, he had kept in tack most of the Kennedy Cabinet, including such shinning lights as Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. With the counsel and support of these men, Johnson took the nation into the morass of Vietnam and what turned out to be the United States’ first great military defeat in history. It would appear that the boys of Camelot were out for more than a friendly joust.
The sinking of an American battleship in the Gulf of Tonkin was all the pretext that was needed to win the support of the Congress (only two out of a hundred voted against the Bay of Tonkin Resolution in the Senate, Barry Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska) and the bulk of the American public for a major expansion of the United States participation in the war. By that time I had read much of the early anti-war literature (Howard Zinn, Robert Scheer, etc.), which was overwhelmingly convincing. I had learned that after the final defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, it was the US government that set up the puppet regime in South Vietnam that broke the peace treaty that would have unified the country (I was shocked to learn that then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had lobbied the Cabinet and President to help the French out of their jam at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 by dropping the Atomic Bomb on the Vietnamese. Eisenhower vetoed this plan. The same Eisenhower, who spent as much time during his presidency playing golf as Ronald Reagan did nodding off, also warned the nation in his Farewell Address, a warning absolutely unheeded, of the dangers of the “military industrial complex.” For these two events old Ike still holds a warm spot –albeit a small one — in my heart).
My intuition and reading told me that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a phony one designed by the U.S. military and government to get public and political support for a dramatic escalation of U.S. commitment in the civil war. This was subsequently confirmed years later. I therefore participated in the earliest of the anti-war activities, which consisted initially mostly of “teach-ins” as high school and university campuses.
My personal history as an anti-war activist pretty much followed the course of the anti-war movement itself, which escalated in intensity parallel to the government’s taking the nation deeper into the Vietnam quagmire. I was still a “believer” (that is, an evangelical Christian) at the time, and along with a handful close comrades, was involved in a Congregational Church in Pacoima, a transitional community in the San Fernando Valley of northeast Los Angeles, where an influx of Blacks and Chicanos were transforming the nature of a previously white neighborhood. I therefore concentrated much of my anti-war activism within the confines of the “faith community.” We offered educational programs on the Vietnam War to local Christian congregations, and when they refused to even listen, we would picket them for their un-Christian like refusal to get involved in the greatest moral issue of the day. As delegates representing our local congregation, we took an anti-war resolution to the regional conference of the Congregational Church, and when it was defeated after a vigorous debate, we donned sack cloth and ashes and sat-in at the alter of the Pasadena United Church at which the meeting was held. We were cursed, threatened and spat upon at many of the churches we picketed and accused of being everything from unpatriotic to Communist. When our own Pacoima congregation ultimately refused to take a public position against the war, we picketed outside our own church (one of our gang, Lew Fretz, eventually left the States and has been living and teaching in at Hamilton University in New Zealand, where he has preserved our original picket signs showing Vietnamese children being burned with napalm and uses them as illustrations in the course he teaches on U.S. History). I think the congregation finally got fed up with us and asked us to look for a “more compatible fellowship” after one Sunday evening worship service where we had volunteered to lead the “Bible study.” Instead of the traditional exposition of a particular Biblical text, we put on a skit in which a series of the poor and suffering individuals approached a student of the Bible asking for help and were rewarded with quotes from the Bible. We ended the skit by tearing pages from the Bible, igniting them with a match, and singing a popular Christian hymn: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Our minister, the Reverend Paul Kittlaus, with all the majesty of the British queen, was not amused.
Our core group consisted of Pete Flint, our moral leader and political guide, who had been drafted into the Marines during the Korean War and who had received a dishonorable discharge for his anti-war activities; Lew Fretz, who had just received his doctorate in History from Stanford; Lew’s wife, Margaret Fretz, a schoolteacher; Dick Bunce, a friend from and recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary; Linda Page, my wife, who was working on her doctoral thesis in Sociology for Princeton University and teaching at San Fernando Valley State College (today know as California State University at Northridge); and me.
We attended all the protest demonstrations. We organized anti-war activities at Valley State in cooperation with Tom Lasswell, a campus chaplain and member of our Pacoima congregation, and with the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). We recruited John Buchanan, a Professor of Speech at Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys to run as an anti-war candidate for the Democratic Party nomination in the 43rd State Assembly District. We picketed Dow Chemical, the maker of the infamous napalm. We demonstrated at local draft boards and the local National Guard headquarters at the Van Nuys Airport.
I cannot tell you how many times I burned my draft card. This was before the days of photocopy machines, so there was a technical problem. I cannot remember how we solved it, but I ended up with a supply of draft cards and even made Newsweek Magazine where a photo shows me along with two others in front of the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, draft-card torch in hand.
And what was my draft status? 1-0, if that means anything to you. I had been 1-A, that is, prime draft material. However, I applied to my local draft board for “conscientious objector” status, as I had been counseling many others to do, and – only because of my religious background – it was granted to me. [Note: insert here something of the history of conscious objection, Quakers, etc.] This did not protect me from the draft, rather it meant that if drafted, I would be able to do “civilian public service” at home rather than go into the armed forces either as a soldier or a medic (conscientious objectors with 1-A-0 status serve as medics on the battlefield).
Aware of the fact that I was likely to be drafted (I was twenty-four years old in 1965, and young men were drafted up to the age of twenty-six), I looked for work that would qualify as civilian service and was hired by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) to do venereal disease epidemiology with the Los Angeles County Health Department. Sure enough, I was drafted in 1966 and was successful in having my health department work qualify as my civilian service. My job was to interview patients diagnosed with Syphilis and to bring in their sexual contacts for examination and possible treatment. I worked out of health centers in Watts (South Central Los Angeles), which was predominantly Black, West Hollywood, which was predominantly Gay, San Fernando, which was predominantly Latino, and Van Nuys, which was predominately white middle class. If you ever need a survey course on the sexual habits of a broad spectrum of society, I’m your guy.
It was sometime in 1967 that I went to UCLA to listen to a talk given by David Harris, who had formed a movement, which he called “The Resistance.” David had first made news when, as Student Body President at Stanford, he was kidnapped by members of the football team who proceeded to cut off his long hair. He went on to become seriously involved in anti-war activities and married the popular folk singer, Joan Baez. His message to young men of draft age was that using their draft deferments (e.g., student deferments, conscious objection, etc.) to keep out of the war was in effect a form of collaboration with the war effort. He called for total non-complicity with the Selective Service System (i.e., the draft). I was struck by the logic of his position, which also underscored the fact that it was uneducated poor whites and Black men who were making up a disproportionate part of the waves of soldiers sent over to slaughter and be slaughtered in the jungles and swamps of Vietnam. David himself was eventually drafted, refused to be inducted, and was given a five-year prison sentence, which he served until paroled.
For me, becoming a part of the Resistance meant giving up the “privilege” of my conscious objector status. I was helped along with this by my employer, who at that same time ordered me to shave my beard and transferred me out of the “field” and into the downtown administrative offices of the USPHS. Rebel that I was (and am), I refused on both counts and was unceremoniously fired. Rather than finding other suitable “civilian service” work, I ignored this obligation. Instead, I helped found and taught at the “I-Thou University of Young People” (Guinness world record for most pretentious Name of School), an alternative school in the tradition of A.S. Neill’s Summerhill. In effect, I had gone AWOL.
Soon I received a visit from two FBI agents who wanted to know about my anti-war organizing and my non-compliance with my obligatory civilian service. I refused to speak with them. Several months later, in June of 1968, I was indicted by a federal grand jury for the crime of refusing to perform civilian service as a conscious objector, and I was arrested by the same two agents. I was home one afternoon having lunch with Alex, a huge brooding sixteen year old who was living with us a foster child and attending the school. I answered the door, and before I could swallow what was left of the baloney sandwich I was still chewing in my mouth, I was handcuffed and ushered out to a car where I was transported to the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
This was the first time I had been arrested since I was ten years old and caught by the local police throwing rocks through the window of an abandoned house (haunted no doubt) on Halloween night in Irvington, New Jersey. At that time I was roughly sat down in the back seat of a squad car, given a stern lecture, let go with a warning, and stumbled home shaking in my boots (I have a vague recollection that I may also have wet my pants). This time I felt an intense vulnerability with the cuffs on, and began to imagine myself the victim of police brutality. But the two agents were professionals, they realized that my alleged “crime” was of a political rather than a violent or anti-social nature, and on the ride downtown in their beat up and aging Plymouth (was the FBI having budget problems?) we engaged in a lively and heated argument about the moral imperative to commit civil disobedience in the face of your government committing crimes against humanity. I got as far as having them admit that they would have resisted under Hitler (sure they would have), but Vietnam, they insisted, was not the same thing.
At the L.A. Courthouse I was given the traditional one phone call, which I used to call home, and arranged for Linda to be notified at the college so she could drive downtown and bail me out. I had male friends who had been arrested during demonstrations who had been raped at the infamous L.A. County Jail, and I had no desire to put myself in that position. It turned out that I was released by signing what is called a “Personal Surety Bond,” in my case in the amount of one hundred dollars. This was the simplest and most innocuous way of being released once arrested, and I admit that I felt cheated and undervalued. I didn’t even have to put up any money. It just meant that if I jumped bond, I owed the government one hundred dollars (in 1973, when from Canada I plea bargained with the U.S. Attorney to be able to return to the States – this was before the general amnesty – the charges of “interstate flight to avoid prosecution” were dropped, and I pled guilty to the main charge of failing to perform civilian service and was given eighteen months probation. But no one ever thought to dun me for the hundred bucks!).
Out on bond I had a life-changing decision to make: stand trial where conviction was assured and serve up to five years in a federal prison (plus a $5000 fine), or flee. I was married at the time and the father of a one-year old daughter. I did not have the courage or the strength of principle of a David Harris, who was also married with a child, and I decided, in consultation with my family, to leave the States and start a new life in a foreign haven. I did some research, and, although we would have preferred to settle somewhere in Latin America, it seemed as if the only countries where there was absolute safety from being extradited were Sweden and Canada (Canada will not extradite to the United States a person accused of a crime that is not a crime in Canada).
Linda and I decided that we had no desire to exile ourselves as far away from home as Sweden, and Canada offered the opportunity to live in a French culture. We opted to settle in Montreal. I had draft counseled a student of Linda’s, Jim Falconi, who had fled to and was living in Vancouver. I would “slip out” of the country by flying to Vancouver to stay with Jim until Linda finished the school year and could drive up with our daughter, Malika, and join me before heading east to La Belle Province (Quebec). Falconi shortly thereafter also moved to Montreal, changed his first Name to Giacamo, and we ended up managing together the Montreal Paperback Bookstore, whose owner was the eccentric Julian Wedgwood, heir to the Wedgwood china fortune (Julian once showed me an elaborate chart of his family tree, with Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of Wedgwood China at the center, and he pointed out that one of his ancestors was Charles Darwin. I was duly impressed). Today Giacomo Falconi, who adopted the separatist politics of Quebec, owns and operates a prosperous rare book shop in Old Montreal.
The hardest part of going into exile, of course, was going to be the leaving behind of family and friends. For security reasons no one could know about our plans except my political group and my parents. The discussion with my parents was heart rending. They “understood” and did not understand at the same time. My father was caught between his pragmatic ethic and, I believe, the knowledge that what I was doing was moral and right. My parents have gone through all kinds of “stages” with me over the years, from my conversion to rabidly evangelical Christianity, to my student shit-disturbing (including locking horns with Clark Kerr, the illustrious President of the University of California), to my political radicalism, to the Hippie days, and to my present life in South America (my fourteen years as a community center administrator — salaried! — and city councilor in Toronto, I think were the only ones that were really easy on their souls). They have not always agreed with me, but never once have they withdrawn their moral and emotional support. My mother told the FBI where they could go (and it wasn’t a very nice place) when they came looking for me; and my father, who worked in the aerospace industry, was put in an awkward position by my actions.
As my father had watched my escalating radical activities – we were living in the same general area of the San Fernando Valley – I could sense a growing uneasiness on his part. This was based entirely, I realize mostly in retrospect, on his concern for my personal safety. But he used all the ammunition he had at his disposal to dissuade me from taking so many risks. He argued that I could achieve more by “working within the system,” that, yes, you have to “stoop to conquer.” I can remember some pretty heated arguments. But, as I say, there were never threats, ultimatums, or withdrawal of friendship and emotional support. In spite of his fears for me, I know that my father never ceased to be proud of what I was doing. He later (while I was living in “exile” in Canada) went downtown to the federal courthouse for the Los Angeles trial of Daniel Ellsberg, the government researcher who had leaked the infamous “Pentagon Papers,” which revealed much of the government’s lies and treachery. He introduced himself to Ellsberg and proudly told him about my having had to go into exile because of my opposition to the war. When Vietnam era Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, published his book admitting that Vietnam was a huge mistake, my dad phoned to congratulate me “on being right all along.”
It was a typical smoggy morning in early June as my parents, accompanied by Linda and one year old Malika, drove me to the Burbank Airport where I would fly to San Francisco and connect to Vancouver. I thought I saw FBI agents everywhere. The farewells in Burbank were, of course, highly emotional. I thought I would never again be able to set foot on United States soil. You can imagine how my parents must have felt as I boarded the aircraft that would take me thousands of miles away, possibly never to be able to return.
It is the only time in my life I have ever seen my father cry.
Charlie would later joke to Neil and me that his secret weapon in getting us to sleep at night when we were babies was to sing to us, because we immediately would fall asleep so as to not have to listen to his operatic interpretations. But the fact of the matter is that Charlie actually has a pleasant tenor voice, and he did succeed in lilting both Neil and himself into dreamland that night on the studio couch in the living room at about ten o’clock.
He awoke just after midnight to the sounds of the snowstorm lashing against the windowpane just above his head. Apart from the howl of the angry winds, the house remained in complete silence. Anne had gone to bed who knows what time, and must be sleeping comfortably in the adjacent bedroom. Charlie looked outside and thought to himself, “better that it not be tonight with the storm raging as it is.” Anne was still suffering with the remnants of her flu, and although Dr. Hautman said not to worry, going out in this weather certainly was not what the doctor ordered.
Everything was set for the big moment. The old ’34 Packard that Anne’s brother Ernie had loaned them was parked downstairs a half a block south on Jacob Street, and there was gas in the tank. When the moment came, they would drive Neil to Charlie’s sister Molly’s to be left in her care, and phone Dr. Hautman from there since they had no phone in the house on Jacob Street.
Charlie thought to himself, with a smile, about Dr. Hautman’s prediction of a girl. He really didn’t care that much, as long as Anne and the baby come out of it O.K. either sex would do. A girl would be nice, however, maybe one a little quieter than Neil, although apart from his nightly colic, Neil was really a pretty cute baby, and Charlie thought to himself I really have nothing to complain about. He had a lovely and devoted wife, a half decent roof over his head, and the country seemed to be about to pull itself out of the depression. Although what he earned in Morris’ grocery was barely enough to get by on, it was a job, and in those times simply having a job was everything.
But the ominous possibility of another war crept again into his thoughts and put something of a crimp into his reveries. He already had one potential future soldier, and the thought of that cuddly dark haired toddling noise maker someday going off to kill and, what would be unthinkably horrendous, be killed himself, was not something any parent should ever have to contemplate. Yeah, maybe a girl after all.
Charlie took a long and loving glance at Neil, who was by now deeply and safely into sleep. He gently lifted himself up and carried the baby to the crib in their bedroom at the foot of the second hand maple wood bed that he shared with Anne. Upon looking up he saw to his surprise that she was not asleep, but rather sitting up with her back against the headboard. Although the room was mostly in darkness, enough light peeked through the bedroom window from the lamp-post outside so that he was able to make out the expression on his pregnant wife’s face. What he saw left no doubt in his mind.
It was time.
With hardly a word said between them, Charlie began to dress Neil as rapidly as he could without waking him. Although Neil fought bedtime with stubbornness that sometime drove both Charlie and Anne to despair, once he was gone he was gone. Thank god for that. Anne’s “overnight” case for the hospital was already packed and ready to go. As Charlie dealt with the baby, Anne slowly got up from the bed and began to dress herself. She hadn’t mentioned it to Charlie, but the contractions had actually begun in the mid afternoon. Since they were sporadic and spaced widely apart, she hadn’t been sure it was the real thing, and it was right in character with her stoicism that she didn’t bother to say anything. But now that her water had broken and the contractions were beginning for real, there was no doubt about the imminent arrival of number two.
Charlie sat with Neil in his lap, the baby fully dressed and ready to go. Heavy woolen pants, sweater and jacket, all hand me downs from one of his sister Rose’s boys. The tiny watch cap, scarf and mittens that Anne had knitted and the cheap rubber boots they had picked up in the second hand shop. He watched Anne as she was in the final stages of putting on her winter clothes, and he urged her to put on a second sweater as he could see what the wind was doing outside. He couldn’t help thinking again, for the millionth time since they were married how lucky he was. Anne was a real beauty. He thought of the way she looked when he first met her eight years ago. With her hazel green eyes, her radiant skin, and her flapper hair-do she could have passed for Mary Pickford. According to her brother Max she had had tons of “suitors,” and Charlie still couldn’t really understand why she had picked him.
They really didn’t know one another when they ran off to Maryland that New Year’s Eve of ‘33. Charlie was so smitten that he would have driven to the moon and back if that was what it would have taken to make her his wife. Anne was impressed with Charlie, he was the first one bright and serious enough for her to even consider marriage, and marriage for Anne was her Underground Railroad to freedom. She could tell he was a good man, an honest and kind man. He was Jewish but she didn’t care, and that was something for a Ukrainian girl. She might not yet have been in love, but when he proposed, she didn’t hesitate. She knew her father would be furious, but she never imagined it would take a full five years before his stubbornness would wear down and break the wall of silence he had built between them (William Korabiak and Charlie would eventually become great friends, and Charlie loves to tell how Bill once told him, “Charlie, you a good man, I like you; only thing, you is poor.” Neil and Roger as children never experienced either a hint of their grandfather’s anti-Semitism or any antipathy toward their father. Nor had they a clue about the tyrannical character of his younger days. To them “Pop” was always a sweet white haired affectionate grandpa; and, when as adults they heard the stories about his tyranny, intolerance and philandering from their parents and aunts and uncles, it couldn’t have come as more of a surprise).
With the overnight case safely placed on the back seat of the car, Charlie went back to the flat to fetch his wife and child. With Neil in one arm, he used the other to guide Anne gently down the steps from their second floor flat, out the front door and onto the front porch, which by now was almost completely covered with snow. He was treating her as if she were a breakable antique which prompted her to say, “It’s O.K., Charlie, I’m all right, I won’t fall, just get me into the Packard and for god’s sake drive carefully.”
It was just before one in the morning when they got to Molly’s. Molly and Morris were first cousins so Molly’s maiden name and married name were one in the same (if she had been Latin American where they use both parents’ surnames, she would have been called Molly Hollander Hollander). The sad thing was that their daughter, Lorna, was born deaf, and in those days schools for the deaf did not teach American Sign Language, so that Lorna’s ability to communicate was always limited. Morris and Molly, groggy eyed from sleep, took a minute to come alive. Mollie fussed over Neil while Morris attempted to get Dr. Hautman on the phone. Anne was starting to have stronger and closer contractions, and Charlie was beginning to worry that they might not get to the hospital on time. Morris finally got through to the doctor, who asked a few questions then said he would be on his way to the Presbyterian Hospital. He was a lot closer than they were, so he would be sure to be there when they arrived. He told Morris to tell Charlie that there was plenty of time, that he shouldn’t tarry, but that there was no need to rush. Charlie didn’t need to be reminded that driving conditions were getting worse by the minute. Morris volunteered to accompany them to the hospital, but Charlie said no, someone has to be rested to take care of the store tomorrow, that Morris should get some sleep. He would call from the hospital as soon as there is news.
It would normally have been about a fifteen-minute drive from Molly’s house in the nearby suburb of Irvington to Newark Presbyterian. In this weather it was going to be a half hour or more. Anne sat in the front seat next to Charlie, endured the contractions with her characteristic stoicism, and on the whole was calmer than Charlie, who couldn’t refrain from asking her how she was doing every thirty seconds. “Don’t worry, stop talking, and keep your eyes on the damn road.”
It was close to two a.m. when they entered the emergency, were interviewed by the receptionist, filled out forms, etcetera. It was close to two thirty when Anne was finally admitted. Charlie was nodding off as they waited in the reception area, and when they came for Anne, she was halfway down the long hallway before he realized they were taking her up to the maternity ward. He had to run to catch up and barely got to where she was sitting in a wheel chair before the elevator arrived. This was the last he would see of her until after the delivery. He gave her a peck on the cheek, told her to be brave, and had a forlorn look on his face as the elevator door opened and the nurse pushed his about to deliver wife into it. As the door shut in his face, Charlie felt moisture running down his cheek.
He stood immobilized for a minute, then he wiped his face with his handkerchief and then went back to the emergency reception area to ask how he could find Dr. Hautman. He was told to wait, and in a matter of a few minutes the doctor appeared with a smile on his face. “Hi, Charlie, didn’t I see you here just two years ago?”
“It seems like yesterday,” Charlie answered, “She just went up, I guess we’ve both got a long night ahead of us.”
Hautman nodded, and they discussed the routine. He promised Charlie he would periodically brief him on how things were going, but that if he could find a way to make himself comfortable on one of the hard waiting room chairs, he should try to get some sleep.
“You still putting your money on a girl?” Charlie asked as the doctor started away toward the elevator.
“Do we need another putz in this world?” he quipped as he strode away without looking back.
Charlie dozed on and off through the night, waking with a start whenever the doctor or a nurse nudged him to give him the news that the delivery was proceeding as it should. “What about her cold?” he asked Dr. Hautman, who had come into the waiting room at just after seven o’clock to inform Charlie that Anne was ready and going into the delivery room.
“It’s not a problem,” the doctor answered, “the delivery is going smoothly, and her general health is excellent. She is a strong woman, don’t worry. It’s going to be just fine; I’ll see you in less than a half hour.”
That half hour lasted longer than all the previous half hours put together. Did Charlie pace? Is the Rabbi kosher?
At last Dr. Hautman strode into the waiting room with a broad grin written across his face. He spoke before Charlie had a chance to say anything. “You are a father again, my friend. Everything went perfectly. Anne and the baby are fine. A real scrapper, over eight pounds.”
“And?” said Charlie.
“And what?” A pause.
“Oh, yeah,” said the doctor, almost as an afterthought and with a wry smile, “cannon fodder.”
THE GREAT CÉDULA MARITAL STATUS CHANGE CAPER December 28, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing, The Great Cédula Marital Status Chage Caper.
Tags: bribary, bureaucracy, carmen vascones, cedula, civil marriage, civil registry, Ecuador, ecuador diary, identification document, marital status, marriage, marriage licence, paperwork, red tape, roger hollander
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(A true story that easily could have been written by Franz Kafka or Lewis Carroll. It gives new meaning to the phrase: “you can’t get there from here.” It is another of my experiences in my beloved adopted homeland that involve drama, tension, corruption, frustration and the need for a healthy sense of humor in order to survive. When this story is turned into a major movie picture, as surely it must, I just hope Maggie Smith is still around to play the inimitable Señora Rina Rodriguez Jordán. She’ll have to ditch the English accent, but is otherwise perfect for the part. Either Paul Newman or Robert Redford will do for playing me. Never submitted anywhere for publication, the story was written on September 30, 2005, appropriately on the occasion of my first wedding anniversary.)
On the one hand, the very notion of a national identity card is deeply offensive to me. It is something that is inextricably associated with authoritarian government. It is the very antithesis of the right to privacy. It is a classic Big Brother instrument, rife with potential for abuse. The origin of the Ecuadorian national card, the cédula, is unknown to me. What is the rationale? Was it initiated during the dictatorship of the 1970s? Why would an allegedly democratic nation feel the need to keep track of its citizens? I understand that the U.S. government, in this era of Homeland Insecurity, is considering the use of a national identity card. A scary proposition.
On the other hand, when I first took possession of my Ecuadorian cédula in 1997 it was with a sense of pride, not to mention bureaucratic accomplishment. I no longer had to confirm my identity by flipping open to the home page of my Canadian passport, a symbol of my foreign-ness, my status as an alien. My cédula looks the same as that of any Ecuadorian. It does not identify me as a foreigner. As a legal resident, albeit alien, I am “entitled” to carry it. When I turn 65 next January it will serve to confirm my age so as to secure my right to the half price senior discount for public transportation and airline tickets, and my right to stand in the special line at the bank for seniors and pregnant women.
So, as you can see, I am somewhat conflicted with respect to the Ecuadorian cédula. It is a contradiction I live with.
The word cédula in Spanish literally means “document.” It is sometimes used with reference to a note that recognizes a debt, an I.O.U. It is only in some Latin American countries that it is used to signify “identification document.”
My cédula contains my full name, Latin American style. This means that I am no longer simply Roger Hollander, but rather Roger Hollander Korabiak. I like that. My entire maternal heritage pops into existence with that single additional word. Korabiak.
My cédula’s number is 092012312-2. It was a fairly easy ten digit number to memorize. 09 in Ecuador is the prefix for most cell phone numbers. Following the nicely rounded off number 20 comes two easily remembered series of numbers: 123 and 122. It only took me a few minutes to save it permanently on the hard disk of my brain. No mean trick given that the old chip is starting to leak memory.
My cédula also contains my place and date of birth (which gets me into the U.S. Consulate in Guayaquil through the U.S. Citizen door) and my gender.
On the back side of my cédula you will find my nationality (space only for one; so, since I came to Ecuador on my Canadian passport, it says Canadiense”); my level of education (Superior), my occupation (here I am defined as a “pensioner,” as it was with my Canadian pension that I was able to obtain residency status in Ecuador in the first place); and both my parents’ full names (Charles Hollander Barr and Anne Korabiak Zalepsky), which brings back into my official identity two strands of my ancestry, through my paternal and maternal grandmothers’ family names, both of which were long erased by North American standards of usage.
Alas, one final category on the reverse side of my cédula remains: the dreaded “Estado Civil” (Marital Status).
When I obtained my first cédula way back in the previous century I was divorced at the time (albeit living in sin), so on my original cédula in the space for Estado Civil lurks the single word: Divorciado.
On September 30, 2004 at approximately eleven o’clock in the morning, Eastern Standard Time, my “Marital Status” took a sudden turn for the better. I got married.
Horror of horrors, my cédula is instantly out of date. Inaccurate, fraudulent, kaputsky. Do I take this seriously? Of course not. It is, after all, only a piece of paper, cardboard actually, immortalized in plastic. However, its mortality becomes painfully apparent to me when Carmen, the single person (no pun intended) most responsible for the change in my marital status, recently informs me that:
(A) upon the change in her marital status, which by the strangest of coincidences occurred at the precise moment as my own, she had gone forthwith to obtain a new updated cédula, onto which, in the space for Estado Civil, she had had replaced the word Soltera (Single) with the following: “Casado con Roger Hollander Korabiak,” (“Married to one cool dude of a Gringo,” loosely translated),
(B) my failure to do same after nearly a year of marriage could be interpreted by some (including herself, including especially herself) as a lamentable and inexcusable lack of enthusiasm with my new estado civil, and,
(C) innumerable, insoluble, ineluctable and interminable bureaucratic problems could, would and should arise from my continuing to traverse the highways and by-ways of Ecuador with an effete, obsolete and incomplete cédula in my wallet.
So off I go one fine day (this is redundant since just about all days are fine here on the Pacific coast of Ecuador) to the Registro Civil (Civil Registry) Complex in Guayaquil, marriage license in tow. This, I say to myself (foolishly, it turned out), should do the trick. I was thinking of what I had to go through to legalize my marriage to Carmen and thereby acquire said license. This had involved getting a statement from the Canadian Consular office in Guayaquil indicating my previous marital status (which cost thirty dollars and turned out to be useless), then having my divorce decree sent to the Ecuadorian Consulate in Toronto, having it translated there into Spanish, certified by the Consulate, and returned to that same Registro Civil in Guayaquil where one gets both cédulated and married.
With that iron-clad proof documentation of my new marital status clutched firmly and confidently in one hand, and Carmen’s brother, David, holding the other, I stride confidently into the Registro Civil complex, praying to god that the window I was going to have approach would have a line that contained fewer than 50 fellow cédula sinners seeking repentance. Sure enough there are the usual humongous line-ups behind most of the windows. However, I nearly faint when I approach the “change of data” window to which we had been directed, and there is no line-up whatsoever! Such a thing had never happened in the history of humankind. Zero line-up. Can you believe it? It takes a few seconds for the dizziness to subside.
We approach the window to test out this miracle. Sure enough it is being attended by a gentleman sitting in front of a computer. I state my need to have my marital status changed on my cédula. “No problem,” he says and asks to see the marriage license. It makes me nervous that he insists on retaining the original, but David explains to me that I should not worry since it is possible to obtain certified copies. Literally in a matter of seconds, my new marital status is entered into the computer. I can not believe my luck.
“What next?” I ask David, who is now in conversation too fast for me to understand with my savior behind the window, “where do I go to pick up my new cédula?” He answers that I am being sent next to the section on cédulation for foreigners, which turns out to be the very first office as you enter the east pavilion of the Registro Civil complex.
I want to step back and describe the Registro Civil complex for you. You approach it from Avenida 25 de Julio, the main artery that connects downtown Guayaquil with its southern suburbs. Just past the Social Security Hospital on the right hand side of the boulevard you come to a major intersection where the Registro Civil takes up an entire city block. You make a right turn at the light, and on your immediate right you encounter the outside hustle and bustle that is common to most government buildings in Guayaquil. There are the male humans who serve as surrogate parking meters, indicating with their red rags an open space to which they guide you and commit to keep an eye on your vehicle. You always leave you car in neutral as every inch of street space is used by pushing the cars bumper to bumper, and you will tip said guardia de carros on your way out, usually twenty five to fifty cents, depending on how long you are parked (with the cars bumper to bumper, you ask, how do you get your car out? Good question. Sometimes as many as five or six cars have to be pushed towards a free open space somewhere down the line to make enough room to maneuver your way out).
You step out of your car into a circus-like atmosphere that includes purveyors of all sorts of drinks and snacks, up to and including full meals; photocopy machines and document plasticization; lottery vendors; and the ubiquitous tramitadores. The latter are like the scalpers that you run into outside of stadiums and arenas in North America. Instead of hawking scarce tickets at an inflated price, however, they are offering the opportunity to bypass the innumerable bureaucratic hurdles and waiting lines you are sure to find inside. They are able to do this because they have “contacts” there with whom they work to facilitate your transaction (trámite). Tramitadores are the most visible expression of the corruption that is endemic, not only to the Registro Civil but to virtually every government service and public utility in Ecuador. For whatever business you are transacting through a tramitador, you will pay the regular fee along with a hefty bribe that will end up being shared by the tramitador, his inside contact, and the supervisory chain up to and including the very head of the institution his self (which, of course, is why there is no one to complain to; the corruption runs from the top down).
(Most Ecuadorians cannot afford to pay the high bribes and therefore have no choice but to suffer the long lines and endless red tape. I always try to avoid them where I can. However, sometimes the only way one can access a service is through the bribe system. We had no choice, for example, but to bribe our way into acquiring telephone service and connection to the municipal water supply in Playas. We made several unsuccessful attempts to acquire a telephone through regular channels. Impossible. You can’t get there from here. To finally get a telephone line, in addition to the regular fee, we had to pay a bribe to the local tramitador – a sleazy neighbor who had three lines “available” at the time – and to the central office. Then, when we presented the order to the local office of the phone company, we had to bribe them to install and connect us. When no phone bills arrived for the first six months we realized that we were still not legal customers and liable to lose the service at any moment, and we had to pay a fourth bribe in order to have them bill us! The acquisition of municipal water involved, among other bribes, getting a document signed by each of the city counselors, for which each counselor collected the tidy sum of five dollars. Are you listening, my former colleagues in Toronto?).
Back to the Registro Civil. Once through the outside gate you enter an atmosphere that is vibrant and chaotic in a zoo-like way. It is a huge open-air complex with two single story elongated main pavilions running parallel with a large parking lot (reserved for special people, whatever that means; but we had talked our way in on the day we got married) and open courtyard in between. In addition to the service windows and offices of the pavilions there are a number of “out buildings” that contain snack bars and photography studios; numerous photocopiers and smaller snack and drink carts; and at the far end of the courtyard is a run down shack of a lavatory, where you are greeted by a hostess to whom you pay five cents for the privilege of peeing into a trough located in the shack behind a cloth curtain and washing your hands in a bucket of water. Don’t ask me what it is like for the ladies or for number two (I wouldn’t chance it unless it were a true emergency).
When David and I arrived at the office of the Chief of Foreign Cédulation, a shabby and relatively small room of about 300 square feet facing onto the open-air hallway to the east pavilion, I again (naïve fool that I am) thought that my luck was holding. You could look into the office from the outside through iron grates that begin half way up the wall, and we saw only a handful of people waiting to be served. Boldly, we entered.
Humbly we approach a short, squat, squinty-eyed, golden haired, fiftyish woman seated behind her desk, facing outwards toward the iron grated wall. To her right front is a work table that contains a Polaroid camera for taking identification photos and what I would guess is a 1960s model manual typewriter, along with assorted instruments of her trade such as scissors, glue, inkpads and a plasticization machine. To her immediate right is a huge metal case with several shelves, upon which sit a number of long open file drawers. To her left is a standard three drawer filing cabinet and four chairs for waiting clients. There are two more chairs in front of the grated wall. The entrance to this office is a floor-to-ceiling iron-grated door adjacent to the grated wall. The office’s three plaster walls are in poor condition and starting to chip away where they met the drop ceiling. The walls are relatively bare with the exception of the ubiquitous religious icons and the flags of Ecuador and the Province of Guayas. I was to become intimately acquainted, more so than any sane person would want to, with this office and its commanding officer.
Meet, Jefe de Extranjeria Cédulación, Ministerio de Gobierno (Chief of Foreign Cedulation, Ministry of Government), a woman with the charm of Oprah Winfrey and the iron will of Margaret Thatcher.
And a one-woman show to boot.
(Years ago, when I was a university student, I had occasion to travel regularly between the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was studying, and my home in the Los Angeles Area. For a short time, a new airline came into existence to compete with Pacific Southwest Airlines’ [PSA] already cut-rate one-way fare of $13.50. Air California flew out of the old LAX, east of Sepulveda Boulevard, which today is exclusively used for air freight. Its one-way ticket between L.A. and the Bay Area went for an amazingly low $11.50. It seemed to have only one employee. He checked you in at the counter, ticketed and took control of your baggage, called the flight to board over the loud speaker, and then ran over to the gate to check you into the flight. We used to joke that he probably then boarded and piloted the airplane.)
Señora Rodriguez could have done all that, plus stow your carry-on, serve you drinks and a snack once aboard, collect the garbage, then parachute down to guide the plane into the gate. In her office, any anxiety that you would not be treated fairly with respect to the other applicants was alleviated through careful observation of how she operated. She would juggle five or six at a time; keeping in mind who came in what order, she would go back and forth from one to another at varying stages of each applicant’s transaction. She would call you to her desk when she was ready for the next step in your application process, deal with you, and then back you go to a vacant chair to wait your next moment on stage and continue to observe in awe the almost surrealistic goings on in this strange office.
She had no assistant. She did everything by herself. She totally oversaw a complex bureaucratic procedure. She checked files, took fingerprints and inspected your fingers (with a magnifying glass), typed in data, operated the camera, cut and pasted photos, and dealt with the occasional tramitador or lawyer who came in representing an outside applicant. She apparently kept tract of everything in her head, nursing each application, with meticulous attention to detail, through the myriad stages of the labyrinth that lead through varies corridors of red tape until it reached the Promised Land of a legal cédula swathed in clear plastic. At times three or four people were questioning her at one time, and it was amazing that she never lost her cool. She could not manage the heavy file trays, so whenever she needed one put on her desk or returned to the shelves, she would signal the nearest male applicant for assistance. She also needed a volunteer to hold the cloth backdrop when she took a photo. As by far the tallest applicant, that task often fell to yours truly.
With such efficiency, you would think that I would have been able to complete the simple transaction of having my marital status changed from divorced to married in a reasonable amount of time.
The good Señora initially did get my hopes up by taking photocopies of my old cédula, my passport and visa, but then she dropped the boom. She explained that I would need to bring her three other documents. One was a certified copy of my marriage license, another was a Certificate of Foreign Registration, and a third was a Certificate of Permanent Residency. The fact that the marriage license had been carefully vetted made no difference. We were going to have to re-invent the wheel.
Off we go. I begin the process on Wednesday (August 31), and on Friday morning I return to Señora Rodriguez’ office in the Registro Civil with all documents in hand. Here is what it took:
Certified copy of marriage license: This was the easiest. Such copies were available in another office down the hall in the Registro Civil at the bargain basement price of three dollars a crack. I bought three, just in case. This was a wise decision, as it turned out to be a popular item. But even more fortuitous was the fact that the woman issuing these certificates, when we told her of the difficulties we were having with the office where I had gone to obtain the Certificate of Foreign Registration (the Foreign Office of the Government Ministry), told us the sub-director was a friend of hers and how we could get direct access. This ended up saving me a least a day.
Certificate of Foreign Registry: This was not too difficult either. I had to go to the office of the Immigration Police, the same place I go when I need an exit visa or where I register annually as Ecuador’s version of a legal alien. There I only needed to provide copies of my passport, visa and censo (immigration police identification card), a certified copy of the marriage license, and pay a four dollar fee.
Certificate of Foreign Registration: This was the biggie. It involved going to the Foreign Office of the Government Ministry located in the downtown government office building (a complex not unlike that of the Registro Civil, but even larger, with several story and more modern buildings), submitting all the aforementioned copies, a certified copy of the marriage license, a letter addressed to the sub-director requesting the required document, and paying a fee. Parking is always a problem downtown. About the only option was an underground parking lot under the new Malecón 2000 riverside park. On our first trip I was in a line-up of about a half-dozen cars waiting to enter. For some reason, the line wasn’t moving. Cars were coming out, so I knew that spaces were available inside. Then the cars in front of me began to leave the line. Seeing that the entrance to the lot was blocked I asked the attendant what was wrong. He replied that no cars could enter because the ticketing machine had broken down. Murphy’s Law (La Ley de Murphy). We drove around for about fifteen minutes looking for an outside parking space. No luck. Finally passing again by the Malecón 2000 entrance, the machine was fixed and we were able to enter. It wouldn’t have kept with the spirit of things for the ticketing machine to have been working or finding a street parking space right off, would it?
Our direct access to the sub-director’s office meant that we could go in the back door and deal directly with staff without having to go to the service window in the front office, which was only open half days. We got there a second time on Wednesday afternoon, were told what we needed, and I delivered it on Thursday, at which time I was told to come back the next morning to collect the document. This I did on Friday morning after I picked up my old friend, Mike Spellman, who was arriving for a visit, from the airport at 5:00 AM, and we had breakfast and did a little sight-seeing in downtown Guayaquil. At the office I reviewed the document for accuracy and found a typo. This took a half hour to correct. Then I was sent to the International Bank to deposit to the Ministry’s account the required fees ($7 for the change in marital status and $20 for the certificate) and return with the receipt. At about 11:00, I had the certificate in hand, and Mike and I were on our way back to the Registro Civil, where I expected to turn in all the required documents and have my new cédula issued.
Guess what. This turned out to be another unrealistic expectation. When we get there, we find Señora Rodriguez ruling over her domain in her usual efficient and autocratic fashion. She tells us to take a seat, and when I turn over the documents to her, she says that she now had to find my original file. From the huge metal case with the shelves, I haul down the long and heavy file drawer that she indicates to me, and she tells me to go back to my seat and wait. In between servicing other applicants, she casually leafs through the file, always coming up empty handed. I begin to worry.
When I approach her, she says she is unable to find my file and has me pull down a couple more of the file trays. This goes on for over an hour. I ask her if I could look through the files myself, and she looks at me as if I had asked her to take off all her clothes in church. This is not permitted. A policeman could pass by at any minute and observe this serious violation of the law. Outright bribing is O.K., but a civilian’s hands on government files? Never.
She then hints to me that a “contribution” might speed things up. “Contribution” is the code word for “bribe.” I slip her a fiver. She keeps searching, always coming up empty handed and with a look of serious disappointment on her face. Finally, it is approaching one o’clock, closing time, and she tells me that I will have to come back Monday morning. Others in the office are signaling me to give her more money. All Ecuadorians know how things work. So I say to her, as I hold out a ten dollar bill, “why not issue me my cédula now and find the file later?” With a serious look on her face, she says to me that it is not a question of money, that she can not legally issue a new cédula without first finding my file in order to confirm the legal existence of the original cédula. She hands me her business card and says to come back on Monday.
Mike and I drove back to Playas that afternoon for the beginning of his 18 day stay with us. The following week I ask Carmen to phone Señora Rodriguez to see if she had found my file. On Tuesday, she said to phone back the next day for a definitive answer. On Wednesday, she confirmed that the file was nowhere to be found (I will point out here that she has no computer in her office, that her paper files are in no way connected or integrated with the Registry’s mainframe computer, where I was already designated as married to Carmen; it was the first thing I accomplished at the first window I had gone to, remember? Anyone want to donate a computer to the Office of the Chief of Foreign Cedulation of the Registro Civil in Guayaquil? It would save a lot of people a lot of time. When she told Carmen over the phone that the issue would have to be taken up in Quito, and it would cost an additional $15, I went into denial and did nothing for the next several days.
Comandante Pita had a heart attack and died on his flight from Guayaquil to Quito in the company of his enamorada (mistress). He was Carmen’s brother’s father-in-law. We had seen Mike off from Guayaquil on the weekend, and the Comandante’s funeral was on the following Tuesday the 20th of September, for which we were again back in Guayaquil. The next day, the 21st, we headed to the Registro Civil to see what was what with my cédula. Señora Rodriguez reiterated that we would need to fork over fifteen dollars and send the matter to Quito, quite likely another Black Hole. Carmen insisted that there must be a way to avoid that. She said no. Carmen insisted some more. She said no some more. The gauntlet was cast down. Who was going to win this battle of the Titans?
Carmen finally wore her down. Who else but Carmen could have taken on Margaret Thatcher and come out on top? Señora Rodriguez said that, well, maybe, there was a way, but she would have to clear it with her supervisor, the head of the provincial Civil Registry. A “contribution” would be necessary.
She asked for $35 and Carmen said no more than $25. A deal was struck. The supervisor approved. We went back to Señora Rodriguez’ office for what I was sure would be the final step. I could smell the wet ink on my new cédula.
“Your passport, please,” she said to me. “What?” I replied. “Your passport,” she repeated.
“But you already saw it; I left you a photo copy.”
“No,” she said, rifling through the papers she had in her folder, “there is no copy of your passport. In any case, I need to see the original before I can issue the new cédula.”
When we had left Guayaquil for the funeral, I had not been thinking of the question of the cédula. I was still carrying the old cédula as I always did, but I did not think to bring my passport with me. “You will have to bring it to me. It would be best done today.” The thought of making the 200 km. round trip Guayaquil/Playas almost brought tears to my eyes. I conferred with Carmen. She said that when these deals are made, it is best to get it over with. Delays can result in more things “getting lost,” more “contributions” to find them.
We knew we would be back in Guayaquil on the 27th, six short days from now for a book presentation at the Casa de la Cultura. Couldn’t we just bring the passport in then? Señora Rodriguez reminded me that the document issued by the Government Ministry’s Foreign Office was dated September 2, and it was good for only thirty days. She suggested I not delay. We compromised. I would come back in two days, on Friday, with my passport, which I did, accompanied by Carmen.
On that day, Carmen insisted that, in addition to my new cédula being issued, we request and carry out with us a certified copy of the new original file. “No, no,” I begged, I cannot go through any more. But Carmen said that this would avoid any future problems. First, however, the cédula. For some reason, the photos taken by Señora Rodriguez on the day that all this began (it seemed like eons ago), were good only for the cédula itself, and a different set of photos was required for the file document. I was sent to a professional photographer who had a “studio” nearby in one of the complex’s out buildings. Another three bucks.
The good Señora now takes us to the “change of data” window to inform them of my change in marital status. She seems surprised to learn that it is already in the computer. I wince. Back to her office. Señora Rodriguez at her trusty typewriter. Since there is no computer in her office and thereby no link with the Registro Civil’s main computer data bank, she had to manually fill out the form for the file and also the cédula itself by hand on the typewriter. She is a skilled touch typist, but no one is perfect. When she made a rare mistake, having no correction fluid, she had to “erase” it with a razor blade. Carefully referring back to the information on all the collected documents and my passport and visa, she entered in all the required data, cut up the photos, and pasted them onto the relevant pieces of paper. She put my new cédula through the plasticization machine, and at precisely 11:02 AM on Friday, September 23, 2005, exactly 23 days since I had begun the process on the last day of August of that same year (and exactly one week shy of our first wedding anniversary), I cuddled my new cédula, with relief and affection, in my sweaty palms.
“Please, Carmen, let’s go.”
“No,” she says, “we need to get a certified copy of the file original. “No problem,” says Señora Rodriguez, “go to such and such a window and bring me two such and such forms. It will cost a dollar fifty.” Off goes Carmen and returns with the forms. One for me to write an official letter requesting the certified copy, dictated to me by Señora Rodriguez, the other upon which the file original will be photocopied and certified by herself and her supervisor. With the letter written and the copying done, she goes off to get her supervisor’s signature, and we don’t see her for the next half hour. We wander off inside the complex to get a drink of coconut milk and run into her, looking surprised to see us. “Oh, yes, the certified original, just one more contribution and you will have it.”
I didn’t understand every word Carmen said to her, but I understood the gist: ¡Basta! (Enough!). Not another red cent. This must have convinced Señora Rodriguez that enough was enough, and forthwith she produced the certified copy.
Now I don’t want you to think that such incredible red tape as I have just described is exclusive to Ecuador, or that I write this in a spirit of belittling or making fun of my adopted homeland.
When I had gone last year to the Canadian Consular office in Guayaquil, for example, to renew my Canadian passport, in addition to having to fill out a form as if I were applying for a passport for the first time (including getting a doctor, lawyer or Indian Chief to certify that I am who I say I am), I was also required, since I am a “naturalized” Canadian, to produce my Canadian Citizenship Card. No problem. Since it was issued to me upon my swearing loyalty to the Queen in 1984, I have guarded it with my very own precious life. Not good enough. Even though it was protected by plastic, the years had taken away from its original beauty and luster, and the Consular official told me that, even though all the information was still clearly visible, the card was in a “deteriorated state” and I would therefore need to apply for a new one (this put me in a deteriorated state, but does anyone care?). In the meantime my passport was issued for only one year, the fact of which is noted on the home page with the phrase: “unless extended this passport is valid for one year only.” Upon receipt of the new Citizenship Card, the passport would be extended a further four years.
I had to pay $30 to apply for the new Citizenship Card in addition to the usual passport fee and an additional “consular” fee, and I was told it could take up to six months for the card to come to the Consular office in Ecuador from Ottawa. I did a lot of traveling during the year, and the matter of the Citizenship Card more or less slipped my mind. Then about ten months later I realized my passport would be running out soon, and I went back to the Canadian Consular office in Guayaquil to inquire about my Citizenship Card. It hadn’t arrived. They checked with Quito, and Quito said they would check with Ottawa. Weeks passed. I phoned periodically. No card.
When my passport was a couple of weeks away from expiration, I began to really worry. Was my Canadian citizenship in question? I checked back with the Consulate in Guayaquil, who checked again with Quito, who would check with Ottawa, and still no go. Was there a phone number one could call in Ottawa? No, just an e-mail address. I asked my friend and lawyer in Toronto, Allan Morrison, to try to communicate with Ottawa. He was in the process of doing this when I got a phone call from Guayaquil saying they had my Citizenship Card in hand. Three days before my passport was to expire.
Is this the end of the story? No way. On my passport’s main page where it says that the passport is only good for one year, underneath are rubber stamped and barely legible the words: “See page/Voir page 11.” Turning to page 11 of my passport, the diligent reader will find a sticker affixed and stamped with an official seal, stating the following: “The validity of this passport has been extended to 2009-06-11. Added at Guayaquil 2005-06-08.” All well and good. But every time I have had to use this passport in the Great Cédula Marital Status Change Caper, and presumably in every future use in this country, I have puzzled Ecuadorian officials, not necessarily that well versed in English, much less French, taking up to a half hour trying to figure out whether or not this passport is still valid.
All said and done, Kafka would have been envious.
In both Canadian official languages and Spanish.
My Aching Back December 28, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing, My Aching Back.
Tags: back problems, ecuador dairy, ecuador life, ecuador travel, guayaquil, humphrey bogart, playas villamil, roger hollander
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(This letter to family and friends was written on September 29, 2000. Getting around in Ecuador can be an adventure at times and is certainly almost always an educating if not an edifying experience. The same can be said of executing most any transaction. What I describe in this “a day in the life” letter is not atypical of the strains of accomplishing every day tasks. Living in the beach/fishing village of Playas, which is about 50 miles from Guayaquil complicates life no end (not that the benefits don’t greatly outweigh the difficulties); but there is no avoiding making the trip more often than I would like to, not only because that is where most of Carmen’s family live – keep in mind that Carmen has seven half sisters from her father’s first marriage and eight siblings from her father’s marriage with her mother – but also because there are so many things that are not available in Playas. This is changing as Playas grows. Just this, for example, week canola oil came to one of Playas’ two large markets (not genuine super markets, something like large mini-marts). Taxi service came to Playas about three years ago. Before then (and today still) you flagged down a pick-up truck. When we moved from Carmen’s tiny apartment rented from the Ampueros to our new home about ten blocks away, we carried all our belongings out onto the street and waved down a pick-up, which took about five trips to complete the move.
There are large deposits of oil in the ocean that Playas abuts, and if the government ever allows it to be exploited, Playas will probably become a boom town, with all the sin and corruption that comes with it. A recent political development has and will have profound implications for Playas. The federal government allowed the other major beach towns on the same peninsula as Playas to separate from the Province of Guayas and form a new province. This leaves Playas as the only beach town near to the metropolis of Guayaquil, and it means that over night Playas goes from being the Province of Guayas’ step child to its spoiled child. Amongst other construction, a new eight story condominium is going up along the beach. This does not bode well for our peace of mind. Already the weekend and holiday tourism has increased greatly, bringing with it more noise, garbage and congestion. I imagine that our “property value” – our home is ideally located two blocks from the beach and three blocks from downtown – will go up. Some consolation).
Wednesday, IWD. Didn’t start off too well. At about 8:30 am Carmen and I are on a bus from Playas to Guayaquil (car needs repairs) when I remember that I had forgotten to turn off the pump that pumps water from the cistern to the tank on the roof. Panic. Once the cistern is empty and the pump keeps working, it will burn itself out. We are already 20 minutes outside of Playas. I stop the bus and get off, leaving Carmen to continue on her way. I hitch a ride back to Playas, turn off the pump and get on another bus to head to Guayaquil.
We are scheduled to meet with Clara Medina, the culture editor of El Telégrafo (“the dean of Guayaquil’s dailies”) to deliver articles we have written for her full page IWD coverage (for Thursday’s edition). Carmen, of course, gets there about an hour before I do. No problem. Once we take care of that business, I go off by myself to run some errands. Carmen will go with Clara to the town of Vinces, a two hour schlep from Guayaquil, to participate as a poet in a forum for IWD, which is being organized by Clara’s brother, who apparently has political aspirations. Carmen is invited because everyone knows that she is the only writer who would take the trouble to go to an out of the way event for no pay. Saint Carmen.
My first errand is to use my VISA card to get a cash advance. I used to be able to do this in Playas, but the banks will now only provide this service at their head office in Guayaquil. At the Bank of Guayaquil, after standing in line for the requisite half hour, the computer denies my request. The teller can give me no explanation. The woman in client services tells me the problem is not necessarily with my Royal Bank of Canada credit; it could be that the line between the bank and the VISA approval centre is out of service. Naturally, there is no way to confirm this. I don’t have my emergency VISA telephone numbers with me, so she gives me a Canadian number to phone (but not on the bank’s phones, thank you) but suggests I first try the other Guayaquil bank that has an agreement with VISA to see if their line will confirm for me. This is inconvenient for a couple of reasons. First, their will inevitably be another long line to wait in. Second, I will then have to carry back a large amount of cash (we’re talking ten million sucres -about US$400) back to the Bank of Guayaquil to deposit in my account there (and another lineup).
But I have no choice. At Filanbanco, where I have never tried such a transaction before, I am told to go to window four where I wait fifteen minutes to be told that I need to go to window six. This is a slightly longer line, but their computer mercifully approves my withdrawal. I stuff ten pounds of Ecuadorian currency in my back pack and head back to the Bank of Guayaquil, where the line has grown to hour-long-wait-proportions. I hate to have leave to look for a branch with a hopefully smaller lineup because it means going around town with a large amount of cash, but I decide to take a taxi to a branch where there is usually a much smaller line. I arrive there, it is now early afternoon, and the line is longer than usual but not bad. I am number eleven and there are two windows operating. Naturally, at one of the window a transaction is going on that lasts for the entire 45 minutes it takes the other window to service the ten people in front of me. When I finally get to the window and complete my deposit, I head to the customer service desk, as much to get off my feet (there is a chair there) as to complain about the service. I get patronizing smiles and head nodding but the silent balloon above her head is saying “aren’t these Gringos cute, they expect to not to have to wait in lines.”
In leaving the bank for my next errand I realize how bad a shape my back is in, and realize I have to make some priority decisions or else I will end up with a serious sciatic episode. Which errands to complete? I decide against going to Central Bank museum. Carmita Lopez, the librarian there, is the partner of Jimmy Saltos, who is organizing a collective exhibition in May, and I was to drop off slides of two of my works that he has solicited. This will have to wait, along with a visit to my pals in the museum’s print workshop and a stop to greet my “cousin,” Madelaine Hollaender at her nearby gallery. I decide I can only make it to a part of town where some photos have been waiting since early January to be picked up, where I can also pick up some paper for my printer and some Flor de Manabí coffee, the best available in Ecuador and Carmen’s favourite (I am not that much of a coffee drinker).
This involves three bus rides, including a transfer at the main bus terminal where I will be returning later to catch a bus back to Playas (Carmen will return to Guayaquil from Vinces with Clara and will spend the night there). While waiting for my bus that will take me to my errand part of town, a woman asks me for five thousand sucres. My policy is usually to give out a thousand at a time, as there are so many requests. I say to myself, “Hell, it’s IWD,” and give her the five thousand. Then she tells me that with
another five thousand she will have all she needs to get home, and would I please. I do, and am rewarded by the quick arrival of the Number “2″ bus that will take me to where I need to go.
The three errands take a bit of walking, and I decide not to stop in to visit Cecilia, which I would normally do while in that neighbourhood. My back is in pretty bad shape, and I realize that I had better head back to the main terminal to catch my bus back to Playas. Before I had left downtown, I had stopped at a pharmacy and picked up some Celebrex (the new miracle anti-inflammatory) and some Vitamin B complex, which I had taken with a quick lunch, but the combination of walking on top of all the standing in line, has taken its toll.
My luck is both good and bad at the terminal. The good news is that, being late afternoon on a Wednesday, there is not that much travel to Playas and the bus is only half full, which gives me a pretty good seat choice and little likelihood during the trip to pick up enough more passengers so that I have people, knapsacks and chickens falling all over me. The bad news is that the bus is probably older than I am. Its seating is designed for midgets and its springs and shocks must have given out sometime during the Carter administration (late Trudeau, for you Canadians). The run of the mill pot holes are bad enough, but the speed bumps, where the bus slows down just enough to avoid a full take off, are murder.
Just what my back needs. Finally, about half way to Playas, going over a speed bump (there is one at the entrance and exit of every small town) sends me up into the air and down so hard that I destroy the back of my seat and have to change to another. The bus ticket-taker gives me a dirty look, tries in vain to repair the seat, but says nothing. In my new seat, I wait, bracing myself for the next bump.
Then, I remember a movie I saw ages ago. I remember the line, word for word, but I could be all wrong about the movie. I think it was The Maltese Falcon, and I think that Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet (he of the 300 pounds plus) were riding in the back of an old jalopy on a bumpy dirt road somewhere in North Africa, when one complained to the other of the extreme discomfort, and the other said: “try posting.” Having been a horse owner thirty some odd years ago in Knowlton, Quebec, and the father of children taking riding lessons, I happen to know what “posting” is.
So I tried it over the next speed bump.
Mariana: the Coconut Lady December 28, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing, Mariana the Coconut Lady.
Tags: carmen vascones, coconut lady, Ecuador, ecuador diary, ecuador life, mourning, roger hollander
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(Mariana touched our hearts deeply. She is one of the unsung millions of heroic women of the world about whom we hardly ever read. I don’t think anyone has ever seen the piece below. I just felt an obligation to put what little I know of her story to paper. As you will see, she had a tremendous impact on her extended family, and it is my intention here to extend it just a bit further.
On the day of Mariana’s funeral, which would have been New Year’s Eve, we traveled in my Trooper to the church in the little village where she had lived, about ten kilometers down the highway from us. At the site of the burial, the car broke down, and getting it fixed and towed home, which involved my spending hours in the punishing equatorial sun, was a story in itself worth telling. That was the story I initially wrote; then I tore it up and penned the following. )
Mariana passed away on December 30 of 2005. She was known as “the coconut lady of Playas.” The grief felt by her family was profound, the mourning was intense; but she was from a typically poor Ecuadorian family where there would be no thought of publishing an obituary. Since she was such a dear person, I wanted to write something and share it with my friends and family.
We met on the beach about ten years ago. She was of indeterminate age; at the time I would have guessed between sixty and a hundred (I learned from her family that she was ninety-one when she died at year’s end). She would not have reached five feet on tiptoe or weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet. Yet she had no problem carrying her sack laden with ten juicy “green” coconuts, which she lugged virtually every day since god knows when, from her home ten kilometers down the highway, to our Playas beaches. It probably weighed nearly as much as she did.
The tropical sun had transformed her face into a labyrinth of leathered wrinkles; and, if as some believe, every wrinkle is a wrinkle earned, then Mariana was hands down a furrowed millionaire. Her single-toothed grin was childlike and infectious, and her laugh was more of a cackle than anything else. The drill of purchasing a coconut on the beach goes something like this: she wields her machete with karate–like precision, slicing off just enough of the green outer rind to be able to cut a triangle into the next layer, thereby creating a hole through which a straw is inserted. The coconut juice is not the concentrated milk-like liquid found in a ripe supermarket coconut, where you are lucky to get a cupful; rather it is sweet and watery, and a tender juicy green coconut might hold as much as a pint or more of this quenching nectar. Once you have finished your drink, you return the coconut to Mariana, who, with a single swipe, slices it in two with her machete; and from the green outer rind she fashions a “spoon” with which you scrape the sweet gelatinous “meat” that lines the inner shell of the coconut. Careful not to litter the beach, Mariana then collects the empty shell and puts it back into her sack with the whole coconuts.
I was basking in the sun, alone on the beach one day shortly after I had moved to Ecuador, and Mariana came by with her wares. I was deathly thirsty, but had no money on me, so I asked her if she would extend me a coconut’s worth of credit and come by our house, whose whereabouts I described to her, at the end of her day to collect. As Bogie said to Claude Raines in the final scene of Casablanca, this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Mariana adopted Carmen, some forty odd years her junior, as a surrogate mother. A visit to our home from Mariana would be heralded by her softly chanted “Mama Caaaaaaaaaaaaarmen,” at the outer gate. She often would bring along an offering of fried fish and rice, which she would have bought from one of the seafood stands on the beach, and, of course, there was always a juicy coconut or two. In turn, we would send her home with everything from sacks of rice and beans to boxes of Quaker Oats and bottles of multi-vitamins.
When there was an illness in Mariana’s family, Carmen (who is a clinical psychologist) would make a long-distance diagnosis, and we would send along whatever medicines were required (you can get just about anything over the counter in Ecuador). This may sound irresponsible, but that is the way things are done in a third world country where people cannot afford doctor visits. One day Mariana arrived at our doorstep in panic and desperation. A great grandson had been caught stealing from an employer, who, with the support of the local police, retaliated by confiscating the family’s canoa (fishing boat) and outboard motor. The source of their livelihood as fisher people. Carmen contacted her friend and fellow poet, Carlos Eduardo Jaramillo, who also happens also to be a juvenile court judge in Guayaquil, and he was able to rectify the situation. From that day on, Mama Carmen was upgraded to Santa Carmen, and for a while we became the frequent beneficiaries of fresh shrimp and sea bass.
When we hadn’t heard from Mariana in a couple of weeks recently, we began to wonder. Then on the last Friday of the year, Mariana’s son came by to tell us the Mariana had died that morning from cancer of the uterus. She had worked plying her coconuts on the beach up until last few weeks before she became bedridden. When I returned from school late that morning, I found a candle burning on our dining room table and Carmen bathed in her own tears.
An Ecuadorian velorio is the rough equivalent of sitting Jewish shiva. There are no funeral parlors in Playas, so an open casket is placed in the family’s home. It usually lasts only a day or two before burial. People come and go, sit silently or converse quietly. I won’t try to describe Mariana’s family home in detail because I am not good as physical description. Bare walls, scant furniture, bare footed children scurrying about, competing for space with pigs, chickens and underfed dogs. By any standard it would be considered a poor home, but it was constructed of cinder block, which is a huge step up from the bamboo homes of the poorest of the poor. The lack of any landscaping or garden and the plethora of discarded items strewn about the grounds were for me not necessarily a sign of lack of pride but rather of ambient hopelessness.
A mass was said for Mariana in the morning of New Year’s Eve, and not only was the priest an hour late, but his preachy sermon said nothing at all about Mariana, her stamina and courage, her difficult but rewarding and loving life. Unfortunately, this is what is expected here, and I may have been the only one to have noticed its gross and indecent inadequacy.
At 91 years of age and the matriarch of the clan, you can imagine the size of her extended family. I knew Mariana only on the beach and from her visits to our home, so coming in contact with so many other people for whom she was such an important person came as something of a surprise to me. It shouldn’t have, but it did. She was so much more then “the coconut lady of Playas,” than I had ever imagined; but I guess is not that unusual to know a single dimension of someone’s life.
Spending a few hours with Mariana’s family after she had already departed from this world went a long way towards filling in a portrait that already was rich with color. Not only was she the sweet and industrious person I have known for the past ten years, but her strength of character and dignity were clearly a beacon that illuminated the life of a typically large extended Ecuadorian family surviving on the bitter edges of poverty. Her surviving siblings and children, themselves of advanced age, were struck with grief. I got the sense of the magnitude of the loss that her death meant to them, from which I interpolate further the kind of person she was and the kind of life she led.
Mariana was one of those extraordinary ordinary persons. I don’t believe in life after death or in Heaven or Hell. The ineffable pleasure of having your life touched by the likes of Mariana is enough for me. I wish you could have known her.
The Birth of a Godson December 28, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing, The Birth of a Godson.
Tags: carmen vascones, childbirth, ecuador diary, ecuador travel, roger hollander
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(Carmen moved from Guayaquil to Playas in 1991. When we met four years later she was living where she had originally settled, in a small apartment that was part of a complex owned by a colleague, the Psychologist Gabriel Ampuero. Gabriel is married to a Belgium woman, Marie, and they have five male children. The youngest, Paulo, was about five years old when I arrived on the scene. He spent a good part of every day with Carmen, whom he adored and was like a second mother to him. When I moved into Carmen’s life, I wish you could have seen Paulo’s face. He could have been the poster boy for the phrase: “if looks could kill.”
Gabriel and Marie had a servant and I use the word advisedly. Antonia Yagual Burbano (Latin Americans use both parents’ surnames, the paternal followed by the maternal. Yagual is by far the most common surname in Playas. I am not exaggerating when I say that probably one in ten have Yagual as either the paternal or maternal surname).
Antonia served as housekeeper, cook and nanny for the Ampueros. She worked full time Monday through Friday, and a half day on Saturday. She would also help Carmen with various tasks from time to time, and they developed and mutual respect and affection. It is not hyperbolic to state that she worked like a slave for Gabriel, Marie and the five boys, and I was later to find that, to keep things in balance I suppose, she was paid slave wages.
It is impossible to continue with the story without sounding like a prosperous liberal boasting about how generous he is to the “help.” So be it. When the Ampuero family packed their bags for a two year stint in the Galápagos, Antonia was left holding the bag, and an empty one at that. She was unemployed.
At that time Carmen and I had been living in our own home in Playas for about a year. We did our own housekeeping (a thankless job because we have only screened windows and the dust never lets up), but we sent our clothes out to be washed by hand (I know of one washer/dryer in all of Playas, that of the Ampueros). Ecuadorian women, for the most part, spend the major part of their waking lives washing clothes. No matter how poor, Ecuadorians have pride in their dress, and with the exception of street beggars, are always dressed in clean clothing). Carmen is allergic to detergent, and when I tried my hand a hand washing, my back said: no way José.
Hearing about Antonia’s plight, I asked Carmen how much the Ampuero’s were paying Antonia. I found it hard to believe. Although we were living entirely on my pension with only occasional income from the sale of books or paintings, the amount was feasible for us (in Ecuador it is most common for middle class folks to be able to employ domestic help). For five and a half days of hard labor, Antonia was earning the equivalent of about ten U.S. dollars.
Although this was not out of line with what domestic workers are paid in Ecuador, I could not in good conscience offer to employ Antonia for that sum. Carmen and I discussed it, and we came to the conclusion that we could employ Antonia at the same rate, but only to do light housekeeping and laundry, and for five half-days a week. We also gave her a sewing machine so that she could use it to earn money on her free half days.
Antonia would have been in her mid twenties at the time. She is intelligent, industrial, honest and fiercely loyal (sounds like a Girl Scout). She lived then in a dilapidated home (thrown together largely with scrap materials) with her mother, sisters, and various nephews and nieces. She was parenting one of her sister’s daughters, Lady, who was about three years old at the time. This sounds weird, but it is not unusual in Ecuador for older sisters or mothers to raise nieces and grandchildren.
There is no other way to say it, Antonia was more or less a concubine for Emilio, a poor fisherman, who was her boyhood sweetheart and whom she refused to marry. Emilio subsequently married and has children, but he has kept Antonia on the string. I think Antonia would like to end this relationship, but is afraid of Emilio’s violent reaction. She once had shown some interest in another young man, and there was hell to pay.
On a lot adjacent to Antonia’s home lived her elderly and ailing grandmother. Both homes were in effect “squatted,” that is, the land belongs to the City, and they occupy it by right of possession. When it was clear that grandma was on her last legs, we conspired with Antonia to acquire the property she occupied. This involved Carmen and Antonia taking an inkpad to the grandmother’s bed and getting her thumbprint on a key document. Thus began a two year process that involved unbelievable red tape, lost files, and a few bribes. It ended successfully with Antonia holding title to the land, which was purchased from the City through our financing. In addition to giving Antonia her own home, it saved the property from an unscrupulous aunt who lived in another part of town and wanted it for herself. As I write, Antonia is in the process of receiving government funding to build a new home on the property. We will pay for the construction of a foundation, and the federal government will pay for the construction of the house.
The following was an e-mail, dated December 4, 1999 sent to family and friends telling them about the birth of Giancarlo, who today is nine years old and our godson.)
This was going to be just a short note informing the chosen that, after a grueling but thankfully uneventful four flights, I am back safely and happily in Ecuador. But I have a story to tell.
I arrived Monday night, only an hour late and was met by Carmen with her brother Carlos at the airport. After doing a whole bunch of things including a visit to an eye doctor to do something about my bloodshot eyes (apparently a reaction to a virus and manageable), we headed back to Playas on Thursday morning.
On our way into town we passed by Antonia’s house to see if she had given birth yet. Antonia lives with her mother and god knows how many cousins, nephews and nieces in a ramshackle hut made of bamboo thrown together with other miscellaneous materials. They are what we would call “dirt poor,” and are so even by Ecuador standards. Antonia, who is in her early thirties, used to work for the family where Carmen had rented a small apartment so she has known her for about ten years and they are very close in a sort of big sister (Carmen) little sister way. About two years ago when her employers moved away leaving her without income, we employed her to do laundry and some house keeping on a half time basis (at the same rate as what she was earning before for full-time work) and Carmen gave her a sewing machine so she could learn a skill with which to work toward independence. Early this year she got pregnant by her childhood sweetheart, Emilio, whom she had refused to marry and who subsequently married another women and has had children with her.
Our arrival chez Antonia was fortuitous in that she was in the middle of contractions and had no way other than taking a bus to get to the hospital. We arranged to drop our stuff off at home and return to take her to Playas General, the hospital for poor people (and the only hospital in Playas), at six PM. Shortly after we arrived she was at 7 centimeters and a quick delivery was expected. At Playas General there is no labour room so she was told to keep pacing in the hallway until the moment arrives. There is also no ultra sound available at Playas General, and just prior to the birth Antonia had decided she couldn’t afford another one, which can be obtained at a private clinic (if we had been here we would have insisted and probably paid for it); so, even though she had been examined at Playas General two days previous, there was no ultra sound on record.
When she started to give birth it was discovered that the baby was in breech position and could not be born. Everyone, including the attending physician, began to panic, since there was not surgeon present at the hospital at the time and one could not be located. If we had not been there, according to everyone we have subsequently talked to, mother and baby almost certainly would not have survived. They were prepared to send Antonia to Guayaquil, and, Carmen tells me, possibly on the bus, as hard as that may be to believe, since there is no ambulance in Playas. What happened was that we got Antonia immediately to a private maternity clinic in Playas where they were able to get hold of their surgeon to come and perform an emergency Caesarian (coincidentally, another woman who had been in labor for five days (!) at Playas General shortly came over to the same clinic and had the second Caesarian) of the night.
Although there was extreme concern about Antonia because, in addition to the breech positioning, embryonic fluids were secreting a colour that indicated the possibility of serious infection, a healthy baby boy was born at 9:45 PM; and Antonia seems to be perfectly all right. It was an emotional moment for all of us when the attending pediatrician walked out of the operating room holding this wide-eyed alert little creature.
In Ecuadorian hospitals, both public and private, there is a degree of informality that would shock most Gringos. Illnesses and births are “family affairs,” and there is a constant interplay between medical personnel and families. For one thing, hospitals provide nothing, and I mean nothing. A doctor or nurse will emerge to approach a family member of so and so and hand them a prescription for a syringe, medication, intravenous, or whatever else may be needed. The family member then runs to the pharmacy to have it filled and returned to the proper person. The family provides everything, including such basics as drinking water and toilet paper.
At Playas General you wouldn’t believe how primitive the setting is (unless you’ve been to the third world). At the private clinic, things were substantially more modern and equipped but still quite lacking by North American standards (e.g., no monitoring devises or even outdated primitive looking ones). After the birth Antonia and baby left the operating room and were put in a recovery room, the next Caesarian was performed and we were left on our own (Carmen, me and Antonia’s mother). No one knew what to do, so my Bradley training and three birth experiences came in handy. The main thing was to get the baby to the mother’s breast, the need of which nobody seemed to be aware. This stopped his crying, and once he got the hang of it he wouldn’t let go.
Carmen has had to do some heavy duty negotiating with the clinic administration to get a discount on the Caesarian, but we have had to guarantee payment. Fortunately the cost of living is such here (and more so in Playas than Guayaquil) that we’re only talking about the equivalent cost of having a couple of teeth filled in Toronto.
An adventure, with a happy ending, and a nice way to come home.
Ps. Antonia requested a tubal ligation but was refused because there was no “husband” present to sign his consent.
Pps. We discussed this event subsequently with the physician we go to at a small clinic in Playas. What he told us was most disturbing. He said that surely there were surgeons, including himself, who were available that evening to perform a Cesarean at Playas General. Apparently, the nurse on duty there has an arrangement with the private maternity clinic (Gregorio Clinic where Antonia gave birth) to rule out all alternatives to sending patients in such emergencies to Gregorio. She gets a kickback.
Apparently the notion of sending Antonia to Guayaquil by bus was a ruse to motivate her to choose the Gregorio Clinic, where Gregorio Andrade himself did the delivery. Now here’s the kicker, the same self Gregorio Andrade, a prominent member of the Conservative Party, subsequently ran for and was elected Mayor of Playas, where he served one undistinguished term in office, undistinguished in the sense that, albeit a self professed reform candidate, he was no less corrupt than his predecessor. We got a first hand taste of the Doctor’s character when we learned that Antonia and baby would not be released from the Clinic until the full bill had been paid … in cash.
The baby, named Giancarlo, today is a bright and strapping lad, and he asked that Carmen and I be his Godparents at his first communion.
Adventure in the Andes 2 December 28, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Adventure in the Andes 2, Ecuador Personal Experiences, Ecuador Writing.
Tags: adlai stevenson, aguaje, alicia yanez, amazon rainforest, casa cultura, Ecuador, ecuador art, ecuador culture, ecuador travel, gerard coffey, ivanonate, quito, ramon piaguaje, roger hollander, secoya, simon zavala, ulises estrella, universidad andina, winsor and newton, Wycliffe Bible
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(Now Carmen and I, having returned to our home in Playas, set off to launch “Aguaje” in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, an amazing city that runs lengthwise along a broad valley high in the Andes Cordillera. I first visited Quito in the summer of 1961, when I was on a three month “deputation,” sponsored by my Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, to spend time with missionaries from the Wycliffe Bible Translators (Summer Institute of Linguistics) in the Ecuadorian Amazonian rainforest. I was traveling with a classmate, Bev Carson, and we spent some days in Quito both on our way in and out of the jungle.
Our landing at the Quito airport early that summer was unforgettable. By coincidence right next to us on the tarmac was a United States Air Force plane from which descended no one less that Adlai Stevenson, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. He would have been on a good will tour to promote JFK’s Peace Corps. In those days, one did not taxi up and deplane into a terminal, but rather descended from the aircraft’s stairs directly on to the tarmac and then walked into the modest terminal building. So we literally almost touched elbows with Stevenson, who, a two time loser of the U.S. presidency to Dwight Eisenhower, had been a political idol of mine. Those were the days, unlike today, when there were liberals at high levels in the Democratic Party of which one could be proud.
In 1961 Quito was little more than the historic old city surrounded by a few modern buildings. We stayed with a missionary family well on the outskirts of town, and for a “sucre” (a U.S. nickel) one could take a collectivo into the center to walk around the historic old town that had been founded in 1534. The missionaries lived in a bungalow down the road from a soccer stadium. It was about a 20 minute bus ride to get downtown. I have to mention that these missionaries told us with a wry smile about good folks back in their home churches who send them C.A.R.E. packages that included used (!) tea bags. That part of town today is completely integrated into the urban sprawl that is today’s Quito, and which fills the entire valley. There was absolutely no way in 2000 that I could identify where I had been in 1961.
Today (2008) Quito boasts a population of just over 2.1 million. It could not have been one tenth that size in 1961. The city’s history pre-dates the Conquest by several centuries. Its origins date back to the first millennium when the Quitu tribe occupied the area and eventually formed a commercial center. The Quitu were conquered by the Caras tribe, who founded the Kingdom of Quito about 980. In 1462 the Incas conquered the Kingdom of Quito. In1533, Rumiñahui, an Inca war general, burned the city to prevent the Spanish from taking it, thereby destroying any traces of the ancient prehispanic city.
Quito is a city from which almost anywhere within it there is a dramatic vista of mountains. In 1961 it was amazing to see how farmers had terraced and cultivated right up the mountains at steep inclinations. I saw little of that on my current visit. This letter was e-mailed to family and friends in July of 2000.)
One doesn’t realize how lacking is Guayaquil until one arrives in Quito. It lies in a long north/south valley surrounded by snow capped mountains and active (!) volcanoes. The city is about 9,300 feet above sea level. People who live on the coast complain about how public resources are unevenly distributed in favor of the capital, and this appears to be justifiable just from the obvious differences in the infrastructure (in Quito the streets are cleaner, well paved, and mostly free of pot holes, and there are many parks and well landscaped public places, all of which Guayaquil lacks).
Although Guayaquil is considered to be the economic generator of the country, one finds in Quito more signs of prosperity and wealth (narcodollars?) and fewer (but enough) signs of abject poverty.
The Casa de la Cultura in Quito (government financed cultural center) was much larger, architecturally superior (as in Cuenca) and better staffed than is the one in Guayaquil. We had a greater audience for the presentation of “Aguaje” on July 6, and as in Cuenca and Guayaquil the reception of both the poetry and artwork was marvelous.
In Quito we stayed with Alicia Ortega, a friend of Carmen who is a native of Guayaquil and who is Professor of Letters at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar. Alicia specializes in the city in literature, and she published a book from her masters thesis on the subject of urban graffiti (a subject, as you Torontonians know, that is close to my heart). Alicia is a single parent with a super precocious nine year old daughter, Alejandra (nine going on thirty, as they say), who glommed onto me as do so many children here who lack a father figure in their lives (Alejandra’s father is a musician who studied in Russia and now lives in Spain with a new family – he is expected to visit Ecuador next month and see his daughter for the first time since she was an infant, a fact which has produced a high degree of expectancy and anxiety in Alejandra).
We had only planned a week in Quito, but Alicia and Alejandra more or less kidnapped us (we were not that unwilling) to spend a second week there. Quito is more spread out and hillier than Guayaquil, and a combination of the nine hour bus ride from Guayaquil and the first days of moving about was a strain on my back, so having a second week to rest up, spend time with folks and get around a bit more was most welcome.
Highlights of our time in the capital:
1) getting to know Alicia and Alejandra
2) getting together to party with friends of Alicia, including the
Managing Editor of Quito’s major daily newspaper, a very charismatic actress, and an Argentinean theater director who lives in Spain and was invited to Ecuador to direct a play in Quito.
3) spending time with Gerard Coffey, an environmental activist with whom I had worked in Toronto. His Toronto group was helping to fund an Ecuadorian group (Acción Ecológia) which brought him here to visit several years ago, and he ended up marrying one of the leaders of the group, Cecilia Cherrez. We had dinner with them at their home one evening, and on another occasion Gerard, who is British by birth, took me to an English Pub (!) in Quito where I downed two pints of genuine European style dark ale (this alone perhaps made the entire trip worthwhile). Gerard and Cecilia are intimately involved with the political movements here, and they were amongst the Indigenous people, campesinos and rebel army officers who took control of the Congress on January 21. They are in the process of trying to establish an alternative weekly newspaper, which is badly needed here (Gerard asked me to communicate that modest monetary contributions would be most welcome). Gerard is also an artist, who, inspired by my example, has taken up the work again. He recently exhibited in Quito drawings he had done at Central Tech in Toronto, and is developing a technique of making prints from raw potatoes!
4) a visit with Alicia Yanez, Ecuador’s finest woman novelist and a long time friend of Carmen. She is a delightful, iconoclastic and liberated woman in her early 70′s, and we had lunch at her home with her son, who is an actor. She loaned me a hardback copy of her one novel translated in English (Bruna and Her Sisters in the Sleeping City, Northwestern University Press), which, thanks to the second week, I had time to read.
5) visits with the two writers who had participated in the book presentation, Ivan Oñate and Simon Zavala. Both are recognized literary figures in Ecuador, the latter is also a lawyer, and it was he who wrote and delivered an essay on my artwork.
6) Ulises Estrella is a poet who is also the director of cinegraphic arts at the Casa de la Cutura. He took us on a tour of old Quito, and he also invited us to participate in a poetry workshop he coordinates, where Carmen was treated like a superstar.
7) a visit to the Municipal Museum to view an exhibit of the art of Ramón Piaguaje, the Secoya Indian from Ecuador who won the overall first prize in the Winsor and Newton international art competition. He was supposed to be there, but was unable to make it. The woman who coordinated the Ecuador aspect of the competition told of how it took nearly two months to find Ramón in the jungle to inform him of his success and to arrange for his trip to London to receive his prize from Diana’s ex-husband. I had hoped to meet Ramón because I had spent a couple of weeks with his people in the jungle in 1961, a few years before he was born. But I met a nephew of his who gave me the Secoya e-mail address!
8) visits with cousins of Carmen, Lupe and Patricia. Lupe’s current companion is an advisor to the Izquierda Democrática (Democratic Left) political party, which is more centrist than left. An ex-general, Paco Moncayo, who was an ID congressman and who supported the Indigenous uprising on January 21, was elected in May as Mayor of Quito with a huge majority. Patricia’s husband is a doctor who specializes in natural healing techniques. All very nice people.
9) a visit with Monica, a high school buddy of Carmen whom she hadn’t seen in over twenty years. We had dinner (seafood paella, yummmm) with her and her husband and three daughters. Jorge is an executive with Tesalia, which is a company that owns naturals springs and bottle and sell Tesalia (non-carbonated) and Guitig (carbonated) spring water. Sort of the Perrier of Ecuador.
10) I have been informally invited to exhibit now at the Casa de la Cultura in Quito as well as Cuenca. If I choose to follow up either or both invitations, I expect they will be confirmed and I will be kept busy at my easel for some time.
11) last but not least, the food, of course. I had one of the best chicken tamales ever and empanadas made of morocho, a local variety of maize (corn) that is large grained and white.
We returned to Guayaquil on Saturday accompanied by Alicia and Alejandra, and spent the night with them at Alicia’s parents’ house there. On Sunday we all took the bus to Playas, but unfortunately they could spend only one day with us as Alicia’s father took ill, and she needed to get back to Guayaquil.
I head back to Guayaquil tomorrow in hopes of picking up my t(rusty) 84 Chevy Trooper, which for nearly three months now has been getting a body overhaul and paint job (the body shop man, and that is a euphemism since there is no shop, he works on the street in front of his house, replaces the rusted out parts of the body, piece by piece, soldering on new metal – the cost is next to nothing by N. American standards (two hundred bucks), but I should end up having a like new body — on the car, that is).
Ecuador: A Philosophical Analysis December 23, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Politics, History, Government, Culture, Ecuador Writing, Ecuador: A Philosophical Analysis.
Tags: campesino, Ecuador, ecuador analysis, Ecuador Government, Ecuador history, Ecuador politics, eugene gogol, gotha program, IMF, indigenous, Latin America, lucio gutierrez, luis macas, manta military base, marx, marxist humanist, mpd, neoliberal, nina picari, Pachakutik, roger hollander, wilma salgado
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(My political writing, I freely admit, has a schizophrenic character. When I am attempting to place an article in a mainstream publication, I have no choice to try to “lay it between the lines.” My major achievement in this respect was the oped piece of mine on free trade published by the Los Angeles Times in October of 2005. In writing to “family and friends,” I am much more free to be explicit about my political revolutionary socialism, but I tone it down there as well – don’t want to turn people off with Marxist terminology [sadly, and for reasons which are too complicated to go into here, this is the reality]. However, I often write for the Marxist-Humanist periodical, “News and Letters,” and it is here where I feel under no compulsion to censor myself. See for yourself the difference in style and content in these various efforts.)
ECUADOR ANALYSIS (June 2003) for News and Letters
What is occurring in Ecuador today is a classic example of the fate of philosophically rudderless progressive political movements. It is characterized by the confusion and bickering within the ranks of the governing coalition (the Patriotic Society Party, organized by Gutiérrez, and Pachakutik, the political wing of the Indigenous movement,), but, above all, by the opportunism of the Right and its capacity to exploit philosophic debility through cooptation.
Colonel Gutiérrez’s dramatic and decisive electoral victory of November 2002 was nothing less than an expression of massive popular discontent with the neo-Liberal status quo. His position as a viable presidential candidate in the first place arose directly and exclusively from his support of the aborted popular coup d’etat of January 2000, that was the culmination of decades of intense political organizing within the Indigenous communities. The uprising was in response to a government that had overseen a major banking collapse which caused the loss of capital equal to the nation’s annual GNP and that was in the process of accelerating the implementation of the IMF’s economic plan for the country. The demands of the movement (which was lead by the Indigenous and campesino communities but included the support of labor and other progressive social organizations) included a moratorium on payment of the external debt, and end to privatization, freezing utilities costs, fundamental restructuring of the nation’s political institutions through popular assemblies, and the reclaiming of sovereignty over the military base at Manta, which is in the hands of the U.S. military.
Both Pachakutik, which was in formal electoral coalition with Gutiérrez, and the Marxist-Leninist backed Movement for Popular Democracy (MPD), which backed the Gutiérrez candidacy, based their support on written and signed agreements that reflected the demands of January 2000.
Gutiérrez’s drift to the right began immediately after his stunning victory in the first electoral round (the pundits had him coming in fourth or fifth). As with so many progressive politicians who begin to taste real power, he felt the immediate need to “assure” the investing community that had nothing to worry about from a Gutiérrez presidency. Many of his supporters, with the naiveté that is a product of philosophical vagueness, saw this as a necessary “tactical” maneuver. They should not have been surprised, however, when his first act as president was to worship at the shrine of Bush and the IMF.
Five months into the Gutiérrez presidency, both the government and, to a degree, the Indigenous and social movements, are in a state of disarray. There have been scandals, nepotism, corruption, ministerial resignations, and a total of thirty-one strikes and work stoppages that have included teachers, public health workers, civil servants and oil workers in the public sector, and workers in agriculture and transportation in the private sector.
The advancement of the neo-Liberal economic agenda and the alignment with Bush and Uribe on the Colombia question are now fixed policies. The pathetic ideology that Gutiérrez employs to mask his treasonous adventure speaks of including all Ecuadorians in the sharing of power, again a traditional approach when so-called progressives take power (e.g., Papandreou in Greece, Mitterrand in France, the NDP in Ontario, Canada). Thus he has given the socially oriented ministries (education, health, social welfare, etc.) to the progressives and the economic ministries (finance, international trade, etc.) to the Right (the chief of whom is Mauricio Pozo, Minister of the Economy, longtime Central Bank functionary and neo-Liberalism true believer). Guess who has all the power, influence and budget.
There has been some bitter sweetness to all this. Nina Picari of Pachakutik, a prominent and respected Indigenous leader, is Secretary of State, to my knowledge the first Indigenous woman ever to hold such a position anywhere. The sweetness is to see an Indigenous person in traditional dress, representing a nation on the international scene, where she is taking leadership on the question of human right for Indigenous peoples. She is no Colin Powell. The bitterness comes from the fact that she lends credibility to a corrupt government that is certain to taint her own credibility in the future and contribute to disunity within her own movement. The same can be said of long time Indigenous leader and fighter, Luis Macas of Pachakutik, who as Minister of Agriculture is making attempts to stop the flow of communal lands to agribusiness; and Wilma Salgado, who, as head of the banking insurance entity, is taking concrete steps to bring a degree of justice to those who lost their life savings.
Those who integrate themselves with apparently progressive governments or popular fronts usually do so based upon the naïve believe that they can do more “good” from within than from without. What they end up achieving is confusion and conflict within the movements they represent. They fail to recognize that it is the masses in motion, not leaders from above, that initiate fundamental social change. In effect, they separate themselves not only from their initial base support, but also from libratory philosophy.
Marx spoke to this in his scathing critique (Critique of the Gotha Program) of the unification of the two German socialist tendencies (one of which was considered to be Marxist) based upon bourgeois and reformist principles with respect to the questions of labor, nationalism and the state; Marx re-enunciated the essential themes of true liberation from the oppression of capital: “the need to uproot the state machinery, the state form, to pose an international not a national viewpoint, the vision of the nonstate to be, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,’ and the inseparable relation of theory and organization …”[i] The adoption of
programs of contradictory and incorrect principles render such tendencies which adopt them at
best irrelevant and at worst counter-revolutionary.
Pachakutik has recently reaffirmed its support of and participation in the Gutiérrez government.
It is doubtful, in the light of those who have the real power within the government, that this will be
sustained much longer. However, the longer it is, the greater the damage to popular movements.
[i] Gogol, Eugene, “The Concept of Other in Latin American Liberation: Fusing Emancipatory Philosophic Thought and Social Revolt,” (Lexington Books, 2002) p. 363. I highly recommend this important book by the former managing editor of News and Letters. It takes a sweeping view of the Latin American scene, and speaks to the various dead end paths taken by failed revolutionaries, from Cuba to Nicaragua to Central America, etc.
Ecuador: The Siege Goes On December 23, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Politics, History, Government, Culture, Ecuador Writing, Ecuador: The Siege Goes On.
Tags: Chile, Ecuador, Ecuador history, Ecuador politics, eucador government, g7, gustavo noboa, IMF, indigenous, Latin America, lucio gutierrez, mahuad, milton friedman, neoliberal, pinochet, privatization, quito, roger hollander
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(After Mahuad was ousted and Noboa took over, a period of stunned silence over the betrayed near-revolution ensued. However, with the same economic policies in place, protest was sure to break out soon; and when it did, I was “on the spot” to report to family and friends. Maybe here is a good place for me to define what is meant by neo-Liberal economic policies. We can trace modern day neo-Liberalism back to the 1973 (Sept. 11!) U.S. (CIA) supported, Pinochet led, military coup against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. Pinochet brought in Chicago Economist Milton Friedman to restructure the country’s economy. It was what is usually and euphemistically referred to as “belt-tightening,” when a more apt metaphor, in my opinion, would be “neck strangulation.” I compare it to that era in medicine when it was thought that cures could be achieved through blood-letting. The major elements of neo-Liberal economics are threefold: privatization of utilities, natural resources and whatever else the government can get away with selling to the private sector; reduction in government funded social programs (health, welfare, education) and employee benefits; and the elimination of barriers to capital crossing national boundaries (i.e., free trade) with a concomitant bolstering of the barriers that prevent human beings from crossing from one border to another. These policies are usually accompanied by bank “reforms” that usually end up in major scandals where national treasuries are looted and monetary policies that serve a similar function.
We are now almost exactly one year past the failed near revolution of 2000. New protests have broken out.)
Quito, 03 February 2001
Ecuadorian government tries to intimidate Indigenous groups
On the night of Wednesday the 31st of January, a truck full of food draws up to the gates of the
Salesian University in Quito. After a short discussion with two members of Congress, who press the police to let the truck pass, the captain commanding the 30 or so officers blocking the road sends the truck away from the university, and the 7,000 Indigenous men, women, and children lodged there. I only obey order he says, apparently oblivious to the historical implications of the phrase. A European bystander asks the officer if he has ever heard of Adolph Eichmann, the second world war, or the Nazis. The captain shrugs.
In reality, the government strategy has more in common with the middle ages than the Nazis. There are elements of the classic siege. Cut off the water, the food supply, communications, and anything else you can think of. Starve them out. And if they do manage to get out then tear gas them until they run back inside. Fortunately a siege has its lapses, and in this case, before the police can counter, the truck finds another entrance where scores of volunteers speedily unload the cargo of hundred pound sacks of potatoes.
This is the almost warlike state of affairs in Quito, Ecuador, where the Indigenous movement has taken the lead in protesting the harshness of the economic measures imposed by President Noboa; measures which lead an incredible 49% of the work force to leave the country in 2000, at least temporarily, and to look for work in other parts of the world. Generally speaking, the Indigenous communities are the poorest in the country and the recent doubling of the price of cooking gas, and gasoline (which affects the price of everything else) has had a major effect on them. Not that they are alone. The urban poor who have no access to land are even worse off. The only thing saving them is the increased number of jobs available due to the huge migration under way. This is small comfort however, as unemployment rates are still high and even with a job there is no guarantee of sufficient money to cover the basic food and health needs. The latest figures from the National Statistics Institute show that an average family of four has 25% less income than it needs in order to cover its basic needs.
The government, on the other hand, is determined to show the native people a firm hand, by shooting them if need be, and by imprisoning their leaders. But up to now the strategy hasn’t worked. The shootings and the events in the capital have simply sharpened the resolve of the protesters. Primary roads have been closed in all the major mountain and Amazon provinces, and after a week there are no signs of slacking. Quite the opposite. The closures have now been extended to the secondary and tertiary roads. The army simply doesn’t have the capacity to manage the huge number of people involved in the closings and as Admiral Donoso, the spokesperson for the Military command admits, it’s a war of attrition. The roads are closed, the army opens them up, the native people close them again, etc, etc. It’s not difficult to understand the magnitude of the job; in only one stretch of ten kilometres for instance, one can encounter 15 barricades, always being rebuilt, re-dug, re-lit with burning tires.
Apart from the Chamber of Commerce of the Coastal Provinces (read: power groups from Guayaquil, the principal port) who demand even harsher measures (the “iron fist”) for those who block roads, almost everyone is calling for dialogue. The problem is that it’s not readily apparent how the two sides can talk on the principal issue of economic policy, which the government sees as its (and the IMF’s) sole reserve. While commissions have been formed to broker the talks, it seems unlikely that the native people will accept dismantling the barricades and settling for a series of talks. They’ve been taken in before (amongst others, by ex president Mahuad who never complied with his promises), and will therefore be extremely wary of abandoning the uprising without firm and controllable promises.
President Noboa, on the other hand, has virtually no room to move. Not applying the economic measures means not receiving the money from the IMF and other multilateral agencies (or debt swaps from the G7) that according to standard economic theory the country needs. Money which will serve to maintain, if not solvency (which is impossible) at least the fiction of solvency, thereby keeping the doors open for new credits with which to pay the old, and thus helping maintain another fiction, that of a healthy global financial system.
Although the government has backed off somewhat in the last few days (food and water are now entering the university) the two sides are still far apart. Given the context, the most likely outcome is that the government will keep on denying the position that it’s in, hoping that by maintaining a firm stance, or by praying to the virgin of Guadalupe, they can pull themselves out of the fire. Failing this, or a sudden about face in policy, the regime will probably collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Its allies do not appear to be too solid. The army is apparently divided; the Air force Chief has told the president that he should negotiate. Only the navy and the police are firmly on side. How long this can continue is anyone’s guess.
(The Noboa government did survive to serve out the full term of ex President Mahuad. In the 2002 presidential elections, Colonel Gutiérrez, the hero of the 2000 uprisings, came out of nowhere to soundly defeat banana magnate Alvaro Noboa. He had formed a new political party and was supported by the Indigenous community and the traditional left. His election raised high hopes. We shall see if those hopes came to fruition.)