What I Want to Be When I Grow Up December 31, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.
Tags: 519 church, atomics international, autobiography, bus boy, careers, Ecuador, golden bull, grocery store, irvington, jobs, la free clinic, metro council, montreal, NDP, new jersey, newark star ledger, newspaper delivery, pancakes, plastic arts, princeton, rocketdyne, roger hollander, toronto, tv ontario, usphs, wedgwood, wycliffe
(My father wanted to be a lawyer and so did I. After graduating from Mercer Beasley School of Law in Newark, my father failed in his first attempt to pass the New Jersey Bar; and he never again pursued law as a career. I, too, thought that law would be a good profession for me, and I seriously considered enrolling in law school upon graduation from U.C. Berkeley with a B.A. in Political Science. But my “big brother” at the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, Garold Raff, urged me to spend ten years out in the real world before consider going back to school. I took his advice, and, apart from doing one graduate year at Princeton Theology Seminary when I was wrapped up in Christianity, I never pursued further studies towards a profession or career. I am 67 years old as I write this, and it may be too late for me to enter law school. Of course, you can never be sure.)
What I want to be when I grow up.
I wish I knew.
There were two small grocery stores in the neighborhood where I grew up. In between Saturday family forays into the supermarket, we picked up odds and ends at Babbitt’s, which was on the corner of Lyons Avenue and Ball Street. The other grocery, Benny’s, was just two or three doors further down, but to my memory, it wasn’t “location, location, location” that motivated us to patronize Mr. Babbitt (and his sidekick, Karl) exclusively. Not only was Mr. Babbitt friendlier, but he didn’t have the detested habit that characterized Benny’s marketing approach. When you finished telling Benny what you wanted and he pulled it down off the shelf or from a display case, he would proceed to ask if you needed any cigarettes, bread, milk, butter, etcetera, ad nauseum. This drove our family crazy and into the less aggressive arms of Mr. Babbitt (and his sidekick Karl).
(To this day I cannot abide pushy salespeople. This is an occupational [habitational?] hazard of living in a third world country. People are desperate, really desperate for a sale. If you show any interest in a particular item at all, perhaps only a mild curiosity about the price, in the mind of the sales person you have made a commitment to purchase; and getting away hands free often can be most unpleasant. Ten years ago, and I am not exaggerating, I bought some chunks of giant squid from a man in the Playas mercado. Once. We did not really like it and have had no desire to try it again. Nevertheless, every time I run into him he comes up to me expecting to make a sale and goes away angry when I decline.
(I rush to add that I sympathize with such people, who live on the economic edge and for whom each and every sale can make a big difference in their daily lives; and I confess that occasionally the strategy works on me. Either to get someone off my back – the lottery people are the worst – I might break down and make a purchase, or I often do so out of pity for a young child or an elderly person who appears particularly desperate.)
Back to Babbitt’s. Or rather, back to Benny’s. I believe it was a neighbor who was a regular patron of pushy Benny who told my family that he was looking for a delivery boy and recommended me for the job. It was at this time that my father told me the “parable” of the Devil and the Angel. On one of my shoulders was a Devil telling me to steal when no one is looking. On the other shoulder was an Angel telling me – you guessed it – to be a good boy and not yield to temptation. I was urged, to say the least, to give favorable consideration to the counsel of the latter.
Which I did. I would have been about ten years old at the time, and my sense of moral values was in the embryonic stage. I will not deny that the fear of being caught wasn’t the chief, if not the determining factor, in my decision to do the right thing. But the job was a total bore. Delivering groceries turned out to be only an occasional (if lucrative, tip-wise) oasis in a desert that consisted of sweeping floors and dusting shelves. And listening to Benny’s annoying attempts to try to sell that extra pack of cigarettes. I don’t remember how long I lasted – weeks or months at most – and if I had been fired I surely would have remembered that, so I conclude that I must have just up and quit at some point.
On to bigger and better things. Somehow I got word that good dough could be made delivering the Newark Star Ledger and that our neighborhood route was up for grabs. It was a small and dark office in downtown Irvington where the old and decrepit male human being who coordinated distribution held court. He was overjoyed to see me, but he gave me the chills, calling to mind Hansel’s relationship with the old witch. He spoke too fast for me to understand everything, but I left with a pretty accurate idea of what was going to happen: to wit, a bundle of papers was to be dropped off in front of our apartment building every morning, and I had a list of addresses to which they needed to be delivered, once I had folded them and packed them into the bag which I would attach to the handle bar of my bicycle. Then, once a week I was to make the round of my customers and collect for the delivery.
The delivering of the papers, despite the requirement for very early morning rising, turned out to be by far the easiest part of the deal. Collection was another matter. People either were not home, and you had to keep going back, or when you caught them they didn’t have what they owed and promised to pay double the following week.
At the end of the first week I made my pilgrimage to the old warlock’s office, handed the meager proceeds from my collection to same, and asked for my salary. No, no, no, I was told. That is not how it works. Again, I didn’t understand and had to go home and get my father to accompany me to find out why I had worked my butt off for an entire week, and the old man told me that I owed him some money!
Well, it turns out that unbeknownst to me, and the term was never used, but it turns out that I was an “independent contractor.” I purchased the newspapers from the Newark Star Ledger at forty cents for a week’s supply and “sold” them to my customers for forty five cents. That meant a nickel “profit” per week per customer, which amounted to about $2.50 since I had about fifty customers. Not bad money actually for a kid my age. But the Newark Star Ledger took no responsibility whatsoever for the honesty or the capacity of my customers to pay up. But what had happened in my first week of work was that I had collected from my clients less that what I owed the newspaper for the purchase of the papers.
I was thoroughly disillusioned when my father explained all this to me, and was ready right then and there to throw in the towel. But my father urged me not to quit, and so reluctantly I continued to wake in the wee hours of the morning to make my deliveries before going to school, then spent a good part of my Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings doing my best to leverage that precious forty five cents out of each of my customers.
It turned out to be a wise decision. In time I got to know when to catch people at home and eventually became the beneficiary of my persistence and reliability. My customers had become tired of inconsistent delivery service and constant paper boy turnover; and they gradually came to appreciate my diligence. This began to translate itself into tips and an average total weekly take of about $3.50 (plus a sizable bonus at Christmastime!). To put this in perspective and give you an idea of what this meant to a ten or eleven year old, my father at the time was earning fifty dollars a month selling commercial real estate.
If I recall correctly, I continued the paper route pretty much until our family moved out to California. As the route expanded due to my diligent efforts at recruiting new customers (for which there was a bonus), I brought my older brother Neil into the business, and we shared the route. The winter was the hardest. When it snowed there were days when we had to make the rounds on foot as bicycling was out of the question. When the weather was really bad, we woke up good old Charlie (my father), and he drove us around. He later claimed that we made him climb the stairs of apartment buildings to deliver papers for us. This story, I believe, was Apocryphal.
Our move to California interrupted my career in daily newspaper distribution and left the Newark Star Ledger bereft of its star paper boy. Somehow, although it is beyond my ken to understand, the enterprise did not go belly up.
Other minor entrepreneurial activities before leaving New Jersey including selling candy bars to raise money for baseball uniforms (Teddy Goldberg’s father who was in the wholesale candy business, provided the merchandise), which turnout to be a disaster when most of the money “disappeared,” something I never understood. There was also a stint selling jams, jellies and peanut butter to raise money for the PTA.
In California I was too lonely and depressed at first to think of remunerable occupation. Not that I couldn’t have used the money. But my father had a good job, and I could walk to Northridge Junior High School with adequate lunch money in my pocket.
Neil’s high school friend, Chuck Henriksen, somehow had a connection with an egg rancher in Simi Valley. Chuck, a CPA who lives in Bakersfield and does our taxes for us, recently told me that he met his wife, Sue, selling eggs door to door. I had no such luck when I tried my hand at it. Ironically, although my father had spent much of his adult life as a salesman, hawking everything from cookies to Mack trucks to commercial real estate, I never had the gift. Even when I believed in the product. They were really good and fresh ranch eggs.
My first big economic break came via “Aunt Sally,” who was not my aunt at all, but my father’s cousin. She and her daughter, Kathy, a year younger than me, had lived in the same apartment building as we did in Irvington, and then they moved out to California and settled a couple of blocks from where we lived in Reseda. Sally was the kind of person who did wild and daring things, like “going out for dinner.” One evening we accompanied her to the Golden Bull Steak House in Chatsworth. Sally brazenly asked the owner/manager, Mr. Nesbitt, if he could use some good help: me. To my surprise I was offered the job of bus boy on the spot.
Old man Nesbitt was a skin flint and a womanizer, but he treated me more or less like a son; especially when he realized that in hiring me he had solved the bus boy turnover problem. The Golden Bull was a whole new world for me. Example: the only salad dressing I have ever tasted in my life was vinegar (not oil and vinegar, just plain vinegar, which was what my mother habitually served with ice berg lettuce). At the Golden Bull there was Blue Cheese, Thousand Island, and French dressing to go on mixed green salads. Although my title was bus boy, I did the dual function of bussing tables and kitchen pantry work. I made salads, sundaes, and strawberry shortcakes; and when Nesbitt wasn’t looking, I actually got to sample them. Baked potatoes were served either with melted cheese or sour cream and chives. I had never realized how deprived I had been, at least from a culinary perspective when it came to American style food (I am not complaining, my mother was a good cook, in spite of the vinegary salads and dry roast beef; and she more than made up for any deficiencies with her ethnic dishes – pierogies and stuffed cabbage, to mention only a few – and her delicious pies and other baked goods).
Then there were the shrimp cocktails. I got hooked on them at the Golden Bull and remain a hopeless addict to this day. And I learned that as delicious as cold cooked shrimp can be when served with the traditional cocktail sauce of ketchup and horse radish, there is nothing like those indescribably scrumptious shrimp cocktail bathed in Thousand Island dressing. Try it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
I worked Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings all through my last two years of high school. I earned something like a dollar and a bit per hour, but with the tips my earnings were well above the minimum wage. On a good weekend I might pull in as much as fifteen or twenty dollars; and holidays were a gold mine. There was nothing to compare with Mother’s Day. We served both lunch and dinner (normally it was only a dinner restaurant, serving from about six to eleven); there were huge line ups of families waiting to treat Mom to her favorite steak or pork chop. I would arrive before noon, have a bite to eat (we were only allowed hamburger or the cheapest steak, the Delmonico, but that wasn’t so bad), and then start to prepare by setting tables and chopping lettuce. From noon to maybe twelve or one in the morning, I would literally be running non-stop. It was exhausting but rewarding work. And it was topped off in the wee hours of the morning with a meal prepared by our Philippine cooks which consisted of hamburger, green pepper, and a seasoning I would kill for today.
When I got to Berkeley for my freshman year, thanks to savings and a small scholarship, I had barely enough to get by. But joining a fraternity upped my housing cost, so that I had to work to make ends meet. I did that by working in the kitchen of the fraternity; official title: hasher. My responsibilities included setting the table, serving, clearing the table and other sundry kitchen duties. I did this for three of the four years of my undergraduate tenure; and, as with my stint at the Golden Bull, my real life education in the “real world” of the kitchen was in many ways superior to that of the class room.
Summer jobs. After my freshman year at Cal, thanks to his buddy in “human resources,” Norm White, my father was able to get me a job working on the “Hill” for Rocketdyne. The “Hill” was a site tucked into the Santa Susana Mountains that border the San Fernando Valley. It was where they tested rocket engines. I worked on the Mercury project and the F-1 rocket that sent the first men to the moon. I’m not saying they wouldn’t have got there without me. I had the all important job of working in the mail room helping to sort and deliver inter-office communications. This job did not require security clearance so I could only handle documents up to the “confidential” level of security classification. Those marked “secret” or “top secret” would start screaming if I even looked at them. When no one was looking, my co-worker and I had a good laugh about what we considered the absurdity of the security system.
Every once in a while I got to watch a test firing. This was an amazing experience. The engines were attached to structures embedded in god knows how may thousands of tons of concrete at the bottom of various canyons. You stood in a glass enclosed observation room to view the firing. Think of enough thrust to get a rocket into outer space and on its way to the moon. The sound it made was ear-splitting. One had the sense that the entire mountain was about to come apart and fly off into outer space. The test firings would last for about a minute, and then tons of water came gushing down the mountain side to cool everything off.
My memories of that summer include getting up at an ungodly (or unathiestically, if you will) hour of the morning to be picked up by a car pool and having to fight all the way during the half hour drive to work to avoid throwing up as a result of the most sickening perfume that was worn by one of my fellow car poolers. It smelled like the cross between a fart and the odor of a skunk. I believe it may have been called Polecat Flatulence. The other memory was lunchtime outside of the building I worked in overlooking a scenic valley. What I will never forget is the size of the squirrels, who were the beneficiaries of our largesse. They were the size of overfed raccoons.
Just recently while spending time in Los Angeles, I read in the newspaper about residents of the area suing Rocketdyne for contaminating the area with radioactive waste. Apparently there was a spill the very summer I worked there. Rocketdyne was at the time a division of North American Aviation, and its partner division was called “Atomics International (AI).” Despite that name, it had never occurred to me that anything related to radioactivity was going on. I cannot be sure, but this may explain why my ears seem to glow at night.
The summer following my sophomore year proved to be interesting, to say the least, but not remunerative. During the school year I had fallen in love with our fraternity’s “Queen,” Colleen Young, and we were actually “pinned,” a sort of engagement (involving a ceremony in which both my fraternity and her sorority are involved and whereby she receives and wears my fraternity pin). In any case, toward the end of the school year I had begun applying for jobs and received an offer to work in a hotel at Big Sur. What an experience that would have been if I hadn’t been too stupid and love struck. For Colleen had invited me to spend the first weeks of the summer with her family at their cottage on Lake Tahoe; and like a dope I accepted. This necessitated my turning down the Big Sur job.
The weeks at Lake Tahoe were divine, but they turned out to be my last hurrah, Colleen-wise. Somewhere toward the middle of the summer I received my Dear John letter. Following an unsuccessful trip to the northern border of the State of California where Colleen lived, in an unsuccessful attempt to win her back, I had the great fortune to be able to attend the Democratic Party National Convention at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and see John Kennedy nominated to run for the presidency. I followed that with a two week stint at the Campus Crusade for Christ camp somewhere on a lake near Minneapolis, where I learned how to reap souls for Jesus and to hate Communism. As I say, it was an interesting summer.
There was no summer job either after my junior year for that was the summer of my “deputation” in Ecuador with the Wycliffe Bible Translator missionaries. I came home that summer with a nice case of malaria, of which I experienced four “attacks” over a one year period. When I graduated from Cal in June of 1962, I was engaged to Linda, who had one year left before graduating from Mills College. So I had a year to “kill” before the two of us got hitched and headed off to Princeton.
Linda did a year of graduate study at Princeton University and was then able to finish her Ph.D. from a distance. I did a year at Princeton Theological Seminary and then became a seminary drop-out. The year in Princeton was sandwiched between two years teaching at the First Lutheran School in Northridge, where I taught math, history and social science to grades 7-9 and Spanish to sixth graders. I left First Lutheran in the Spring of 1965, and exactly 40 years later, I returned to teaching (in the conventional sense) in Ecuador for the Catholic University of Guayaquil, which sponsors a high school in Playas (for you science buffs in the audience, I can report the two major technological advances I noticed over that 40 year period: to wit, the use of non-indelible markers on white “blackboards” – but with the same old felt erasers; and liquid paper – pronounced “lickypaper” in Spanish – or what I used to know as “white-out,” instead of ink erasers. The latter coming in the shape of pens that you squeeze as you “write” with the liquid paper over what you wish to erase).
My next job was integrated with my need to do civilian service in lieu of military service as a result of my conscientious objector draft status. I was taking an adult ed. course at U.C.L.A. in writing and came across an ad in the student newspaper, which I answered. It was to do Syphilis epidemiology for the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) division of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), assigned to the Los Angeles County Health Department. I did this for a year before I go myself fired for insubordination, during which time I worked in the communities of Watts (in the year following the 1965 Watts Rebellion), West Hollywood (a gay Mecca), and the San Fernando Valley (my home town).
Out of a job and living the life of a Hippie, while at the same time participating with a passion in the political movements of the 1960s, for a short while I teamed up with Pete Flint in establishing and running the “I-Thou University of Young People” (which gets my vote for “most pretentious name for a do-it-yourself project”). We modeled ourselves after A.S. Neill’s “free school,” Summerhill (Pete’s kids had been involved with a Summerhill knock-off somewhere in the Valley), and I believe we had all of five or six students, two of whom were Pete’s children. We did a lot of political stuff, we had a kiln and did pottery; and I still have somewhere a vase that I made at that time.
My stint as a non-traditional teacher/administrator ended abruptly when I was arrested by the F.B.I. for violation of the Selective Service Act (failure to perform civilian service in lieu of military service) and flew the coop for Canada.
I had the best of luck in landing a job almost immediately upon arriving in Montreal. I was hired by Julian Wedgwood, of the Wedgwood China family, to assist him in running the Montreal Paperback Book Store, which was located in Notre Dame de Grace (NDG), a largely English speaking western suburb of Montreal. Working in a book store is a common fantasy amongst writers and intellectuals, and I would say that for the most part the experience lived up to its promise. I got to read a lot and meet and shoot the shit with a lot of interesting people, including “regulars” who would come by periodically to chat about politics or literature. Of course there was both the business side and periods of boredom which were much less romantic than the fantasy.
In spite of the fact that Julian Wedgwood came from enormous wealth, he had gone off to the colonies to seek his fortune based upon his wits rather than the lucre; and he was no great businessman. The biggest problem was that the business was undercapitalized. We never had enough stock and were always in debt to publishers, who would sometimes cut us off. To make up for the inadequate retail sales, Julian got us into wholesaling paperbacks to local high schools. The problem with this is that we gave up a full half of the 40% discount we got from the publishers, and there wasn’t enough volume to make it worthwhile.
After about a year Wedgwood decided to go back to England, from whence he shipped us huge supplies of certain cheaper paperbacks published by Penguin, which had no publishing rights in Canada. We were selling contraband to the schools! This helped a bit, but it was our used book business that kept our heads above water. On the sidewalk in front of the store we had a huge paper mache bear and portable book cases that contained used paperbacks that we sold for either ten cents or a quarter (mostly the former). We would buy any paperback in reasonable condition for a nickel and sell most of them for a dime. Mysteries, Harlequin romances, science fiction and popular novels were the mainstay of this trade; the volume was enormous, and we invariable had higher sales in this “sideline” than we did with our retail paperbacks. The fact that we often sold paperbacks at a quarter that were worth many times that amount was counterbalanced by our purchasing for a nickel books that too were worth a lot more. It was a formula that worked for us, and I am convinced that in the right neighborhood it has the potential of a gold mine.
When Julian went back to England, our old friend, Linda’s former student and my former draft counselee, Jim Falconi, aka Giacomo Falconi, joined with me to co-manage the store (he had moved to Montreal from Vancouver and was working in Classics Book Store, one of Canada’s major chains). For some reason, Julian wanted us to move downtown, so we abandoned our NDG cubbyhole of a store and rented a much larger step-down on the same street as Sir George Williams University (which today is known as Concordia). Julian, who eccentricities knew no limits, had found an old barn, had it torn down, and use the old weathered wood to line the walls of the store. As for sales, it was déjà vu all over again. We did a landfall business the first week of school selling required reading to the Sir George students. After that, our non-academic stock in its usual state of depletion, sales slowed to a trickle. Given that we were paying triple the rent downtown that we had paid in NDG, it wasn’t long before the business went kaputsky.
Another one of Wedgwood’s eccentricities was his ability to make the strangest contacts. There was a massive dam project in Churchill Falls, Labrador, and the catering company that provided meals and sundries to the workers contracted with us to send them paperback books for their company store. What they really wanted was soft core porno, which we were able to supply for a while, until those publishers cut us off when our accounts went unpaid for months. Then we had to look for books from our regular stock that had “suggestive” covers, including classics by such authors as Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austin and George Eliot. What a worker thought or did when he opened his copy of “Wuthering Heights” only to be disappointed for its failure to deliver more than its cover of bulging 19th century bodices, I’ll never know. There is always the hope that we contributed to the cultural refinement of macho working class mercenaries. In the end, though, the caterers wanted the real thing, which we couldn’t deliver, and we lost that contract too.
At one point, however, I had been sent flying up to Churchill Falls to get a first hand look at our “market.” It is a trip I’ll never forget. That part of Labrador is almost literally at the end of the world. For hours we flew over the most god-forsaken dreary tundra before reaching the dam (damn?) site. It gave me a whole new perspective on the notion of “barren.” It was April, and spring had just begun to show signs of arrival in Montreal. At Churchill Falls I encountered the most wicked weather imaginable. The wind-chill factor must have been a hundred degrees below zero. I remember that crossing the fifty or so meters that separated the barracks where I slept from the dining and commissary area was so treacherous that I did it only when absolutely necessary. I don’t know how the workers were able to survive there, and I had a new appreciation of their desire for pornography.
After the demise of the Montreal Paperback, a year or more of unemployment followed. We were living in our commune at the time, and I spent most of my time at our “vacation” chalet in the Laurentians until we up and moved to Knowlton, which is located in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, about 50 miles southeast of Montreal.
From there I made the decision to return to the United States, and this involved negotiations with the government since this was about a year before amnesty was granted to Vietnam War resisters. Ken Cloke, my Reseda High School and Berkeley comrade, is a lawyer and former president of the lefty National Lawyers Guild. He negotiated a deal with the U.S. Attorney that included my obligation to complete the civilian service in lieu of military service, which I had abandoned. There was no question of my getting my old job back with the U.S. Public Health Service, so I had to look for something else.
I ended up spending the next three years at the Los Angeles Free Clinic as the Administrator of the Medical Department (which was the core of the Clinic’s services, which also included dental care and psychological and job search counseling). When the clinic received additional federal funding, I also served as Family Planning Coordinator. I took over those responsibilities just as the clinic was getting well established and expanding its services. In addition to managing the Medical Department’s core primary care services (one third each, venereal disease, women’s health care, general family medicine), I tried to concentrate on prevention and health education (including family planning and pregnancy counseling); and, although I faced considerable resistance, I was able to slowly introduce continuity of care to supplement the clinic’s emergency orientation.
After three years at the LAFC, I headed back to Canada (Green River, just outside of Toronto), where there was a year of house husbanding, where I tried unsuccessfully to establish myself as a free lance writer. When Barbara and I separated and she returned to California, I moved into bachelor quarters in Toronto (with space, of course for Malika and Chantal) and did a series of patch work jobs before landing my position at the 519 Church Street Community Centre. These included selling advertising for theatre programs, working the box office at the Music Hall Theatre on the Danforth, and working in the kitchen that catered film companies (the one movie I remember working on was “Circle of Two.” which starred Richard Burton and Tatum O’Neal). The cook for this catering operation was German, and he had a recipe for beef in a creamy horse radish sauce that I would give anything to be able to reproduce.
The most interesting and long lasting of these short-term employments was the work I did as the field representative for the Province of Ontario’s (Ontario Educational Communications Authority – OECA) Educational television station, T.V. Ontario. I visited four remote northern communities (Owen Sound, Geraldton, Marathon, and Manitouwadge) to promote participation in experimental satellite educational programming. I also wrote a successful grant application for T.V. Ontario, a project called “Art is Real,” which was implemented in Thunder Bay (one community organization refused to participate because they wanted nothing to do with Jewish art; they had misinterpreted the name of the project to be “Art Israel.!”).
When my application for permanent employment with OECA was rejected, I began a serious search for stable work in Toronto and was short listed for two community organizations. I had two interviews with the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, but the job went to Liz Feltes (who retired from it a couple of years ago). My future wife, Cathy Crowe, was working there at the time, and who knows what would have happened if I had landed that position.
At the 519 Church Street Community Centre, I was one of 200 applicants for the position of Executive Director. In the covering letter to my application I had used the phrase, “method to my madness.” Two of the five hiring committee members, both of an extraordinary literary bent (writer, editor, Rick Archbold, and Judy Salamon, with her PhD in Literature) thought they had a Shakespeare scholar as well as an administrator within their grasp; and I was offered the job.
I spent seven supremely happy and fulfilling years at the 519. If there was any problem it was that once I had mastered the basics of the centre’s operation and had competent staff in place, it became clear to me that there simply wasn’t enough to do to keep a full-time Executive Director busy. Involvement in the broader community centre movement and fighting to stem cutbacks in funding did fill much of this gap. But I admit that toward the end I was beginning to feel bored and unchallenged. It doesn’t follow that I therefore jumped at the opportunity to run for political office. To the contrary I resisted it strongly at first, and then gave in reluctantly. Yet I cannot deny that, to some extent I felt that it might be time to move on. My immediate successor as Executive Director, Kyle Rae, soon followed in my footsteps and became the City of Toronto’s first openly gay City Councillor (the political footsteps, not gay ones). His successor, Allison Kemper, has kept on for years, and, as far as I know, she is still steering the ship. The last time I visited the centre (summer 2005) they were in the midst of a major building expansion project.
(Well, I was almost an openly gay City Councillor. I explain. At Metro Council we were debating a measure, one that we actually passed, to give full spousal benefits to same sex partners of our employees. During the course of the debate I got carried away with my human rights zeal and compared myself with John Kennedy, when he made the famous speech in Berlin when it was under siege, including the unforgettable words: “Ich bein ein Berliner.” At my quoting myself saying “Ich bein gay” [I am gay], the press corps, which was in its usual state of bored semi stupor up in the press gallery, came to life and descended on me en masse. “Councillor Hollander, did we just hear you coming out of the closet?” I quickly put things in context for them)
My seven years on Toronto Metro Council were not the happiest years of my life. Like a salmon on its way to spawn, I was all swimming against the current all the way. I refused to play the old boys’ game, refused to trade votes or compromise basic principles. Perhaps one can go that route and be effective, but it didn’t work that well for me. I was pretty much marginalized by my peers and the media. Many considered me to be “the conscience of Council.” Whoopee.
I concentrated on supporting community activity with whatever resources my office could provide. I won enough small battles but lost too many big ones. Our office was able to help hundreds if not thousands over a seven year period with problems of welfare eligibility, housing, racial discrimination, etc. Community services (hostels for the homeless, child care, homes for the aged, social housing, etc.) and police watch dogging were my bailiwick. It is hard for me to know if I was effective, and, if so, to what degree. There was enough positive feedback to make it feel worthwhile, but I did not have the impact on the overall running of the municipality that I would have liked to have.
When I was originally drafted by the New Democratic Party (NDP) to run in the by-election, I committed myself to one additional term if elected. I ended up being re-elected a second time; and by the end of that three year term there was not question in my mind that I wanted out. I simply chose not to run for re-election
During the course of my seven year stint on Metro Council I availed myself only twice of the oft abused privilege of traveling at the City’s expense. In both instances, they were serious and legitimate endeavors (unlike many “junkets” taken by my colleagues, such as the flower show in Amsterdam attended by a member of our Parks Committee or the Taxi conference in Las Vegas attended by that same member, who was also on the Licensing Committee).
In 1989 I attended a National Aids Conference in San Francisco, and upon return wrote an extensive report, which was well received. Not that I didn’t take advantage of the trip for considerable personal enjoyment. Cathy traveled with me, at her own expense. San Francisco is one of my all-time favorite cities, and while there we enjoyed such delights as North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf, Haight-Ashbury, and the Castro District (the Gay Ghetto). We also took in a Cal football game at Berkeley, the Bears beat San Jose State, and that was certainly a trip down memory lane for me. We sat in the stands after the sweet victory and listened to the celebrated Cal Marching Band play all those nostalgic school tunes.
In 1994, my last year on Council, I had occasion to participate in an angry demonstration organized by the Ecuadorian-Canadian community in protest of the killing of a young Ecuadorian, Tony Vega. Tony had mental health problems, was causing a disturbance at home, and his family phoned the Metro Police for help. When Tony threatened the police with a baseball bat, they shot him dead. This brought me into contact with Marcelo Ruiz, the president of the Ecuadorian-Canadian organization in Toronto.
Some months after the Vega shooting, Marcelo phoned me and invited me to meet two Ecuadorian politicians, who were on a dual purpose mission to Toronto, which included promoting a pilot project sponsored by a Commission of the Ecuadorian Congress. The Congressman who headed that commission, with whom I met and lunched, was Juan José Costelló, an educator, and a member of a left wing political party that was more or less the political arm of the teachers’ union. Along with Marcelo, Carlos Castro Vaca, Mayor of the Andes town of Riobamba and of the same political stripe as Juan José, and Metro’s Works Commissioner, Bob Ferguson, we lunched at the restaurant on top of the CN Tower, the latter picking up the tab.
This meeting led an official invitation from the Education and Culture Commission of the Ecuadorian Congress for Ferguson and me to visit Ecuador in order to observe the Commission sponsored pilot project on recycling in elementary schools that was being administered by the teachers’ union (UNE). Thus, accompanied by Marcelo Ruiz, Bob and I spent ten days visiting schools in Quito, Riobamba and Guayaquil in the fall of 1994 (and upon returning to Toronto, I worked to get local support for the project and got Metro Council to sponsor a return visit by Carlos Castro and Juan José’s brother, Francisco; unfortunately this effort yielded miniscule results, and the project petered out for lack of funding).
The project was called (English translation) “Paper to Recycle, Notebooks to Study.” It was a simple yet brilliant idea. Students were asked to bring to school old newspapers, which they were to collect from their families and neighbors. Each student created his or her own decorative cardboard box in which to transport their collect newspapers. Each classroom in turn had its own larger container, and each participating school had an even larger bin to store the newspapers accumulated from all the classrooms. There were competitions amongst classrooms and between schools to see who could collect the most. Ideally, the collected newspapers would have been recycled into usable notebooks. But Ecuador doesn’t have an industry with that capacity, so the papers were sold to toilet paper manufacturers (we visited a toilet paper factory outside of Guayaquil and saw how the recycled newspaper was made into serviceable T.P.). With the revenues from these sales, notebooks were purchased and distributed to the students.
There was a strong pedagogical component to the project as well. Students learned about the environment and the need for ecological protection. As we toured various schools we witnessed songs, dramas, and posters on the theme of environmental protection.
There were forty three years between my first and second visits to Ecuador. After the first visit, I promised myself that I would one day return, and it was beginning to look as if that were never going to be fulfilled.
Having made the decision not to run for re-election to Metro Council in the November 1994 city elections, I had to decide what to do with my life. I gave myself three options: stay in Toronto and look for a new job; move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, which I had come to love from my visits to Liz Canfield over the years; or head south to live for a while in Ecuador. I had Liz doing some ground work for me on Albuquerque, and had been short listed for the job of Executive Director of a statewide A.I.D.S. program, when I made the decision in favor of Ecuador.
Before finalizing my decision, however, I consulted with each of my daughters, my brother, and my parents. This was where my mother told me she believed that one should do one’s own thing, and when I told her she sounded like a Hippie, she responded by saying, “I am a Hippie!” Everyone supported my decision. I then consulted with Marcelo Ruiz, who has contacts all over the country. He asked me if I wanted to settle in the mountains, the coast or the jungle. Without hesitation I chose the coast. The idea was that he would put me in touch with his political contacts there and together we would look for a project or projects in which I could become involved.
Marcelo had told me that he had been a student activist during the time of the Ecuadorian dictatorship (1970s). His closest ties are with the MPD (Movement for Popular Democracy). The MPD is made up largely of members of the Ecuadorian teachers’ union, UNE (National Union of Educators). It is considered one of the far left parties on the Ecuadorian political spectrum and my have ties with the outlawed PCMLE (Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Ecuador). The people involved with the recycling project in Ecuador were all connected with the MPD and/or UNE.
When I got to Ecuador, I was put in contact with Aracelly Moreno and her husband, Marcelo Moncayo. Aracelly is a former teacher, union activist, and, at the time, was an MPD congresswoman. Marcelo is an engineer, professor, and Marxist intellectual. They are both extremely decent people, and the treated me kindly. Aracelly, in particular is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect. She is a true fighter, and she stays the battle in spite of the misogyny she encounters within her own movement (she jokingly refers to “Machista Leninistas”). Marcelo arranged for me to rent a large bungalow near the beach in a resort complex about a two hour drive from Guayaquil. From there I was going to look for involvement with projects having to do with organizing fishermen.
Before taking possession of the bungalow, I spent a couple of weeks there with a large group of their friends, all MPDers (emepedistas in Spanish). All very nice people, but one thing really set me back: the ubiquity of the RSH virus (Racist/Sexist/Homophobic). The racism and homophobia came out mostly in efforts at humor (it was recommended to me, for example, that I could cure my back problems by sleeping with a big black woman). The sexism, on the other hand, was palpable in every day living. At meal time, the women, having spent hours laboring over a hot stove, would serve first the men, then the children; then they would sit down to have a bite to eat themselves before getting up to do the dishes and clean up the kitchen (while the men drank Cuba Libres on the veranda). Marcelo took pride in teaching his adolescent son to whistle at the females on the beach. Homosexuality was illegal in Ecuador at the time, and the term maricón (fag) was used with impunity.
This was a real turn off. It was like being in a time warp that transformed me back to the 1950s. Such overt racism, sexism and homophobia is, thank the goddess, virtually nonexistent amongst the left in North America. This was not the only factor that ended up changing my course. Meeting Carmen and getting involved with the cultural community (which is much more broad minded than the politicos) probably had more to do than anything else with veering from my original plans.
I ended up, after about two months in the country, giving up my beach bungalow and moving in with Carmen in her two by four apartment in Playas. Which takes me to my next career adventure: retail clothing salesman. Carmen’s youngest brother, Manuel, had an import business, centered mostly in importing clothing and accessories from Panama. Carmen was making her living (about a hundred dollars a month) by selling clothing to friends and contacts in Playas. I put new energies into the “business,” including but not limited to modernizing her bookkeeping and accounting system, which had consisted of loose pieces of paper, randomly arranged. When I got into drawing, we added my line of “Playa Gringo” silk-screened T-shirts to our inventory. It was thankless work. We had some of our merchandise in the local version of a department store, but on consignment, and the revenue trickled in. The biggest problem was that, in order to sell, we had to give credit (nobody has ready cash, it seems, in Ecuador); and then we had to pull teeth in order to collect (shades of my old newspaper delivery days). This was most unpleasant; and when I decided to do art full time and my Canadian pension kicked in, we were able to go out of the retail clothing business.
But before becoming an artiste, I had one more fling on the retail side of things. Playas is a beach resort, and it is inundated with tourists, virtually one hundred percent Ecuadorian, on weekends and holidays, during the vacations season, which is roughly New Years until Easter. It occurred to me that we could get rich selling something novel on the beach, where vendors plied beer and soft drinks along with typical Ecuadorian fare. We experimented with friends, and what was best received were my pancakes, which I made by adding the ripe platano (plantain), which gave them a rich banana flavor.
So on the first big weekend of the season, early Saturday morning I cooked up about fifty pancakes, placed them attractively in flat baskets, and sent them out to the beach with five local kids we had rounded up. In about an hour all five came back with nary a pancake missing from their baskets. This was disheartening
“Give me those pancakes,” I said, as we dismissed the kids and sent them home with some spending money for their efforts. I remembered an experience I had had several weeks ago at a beach in Salinas before I had met Carmen. A man came up to us selling these brown rounded candies that didn’t appeal to me on sight. He insisted, however, that I try a sample. They turned out to be made of coconut, one of my very favorite flavors, and I consequently made a purchase.
So I took a fork along with me, with which I cut up a pancake into small pieces for chumming. I would approach a group on the beach and offer my pancakes. They would politely shake there heads no, at which time I would proceed to insist that they take a sample of my “Canadian pancakes,” which I had made with my own two little hands. No obligation to purchase. I returned to the house in about a half hour with my basket empty.
We sold over 2000 pancakes that “season.” At first I made the batter and fried the flapjacks, and then went out onto the beach to sell them. This soon became untenable, so I gave my secret recipe to Carmen, and she stayed home and fried while I went out and hawked. We worked only on weekends and holidays. Our pancakes sold at two for 1000 sucres (about 20 cents each). The wonders of multiple pricing: rarely would someone ask timidly if they might be allowed to buy only one pancake at 500 sucres. Most bought two or four, and I sold as many as ten at a time to large families. Occasionally someone would know what a North American pancake is and ask if I had any maple syrup to go along. I explained that the sweet banana flavor made up for the lack of a sweet syrup, and I pointed out that our pancakes has a taste similar to the popular Ecuadorian maduro lampriado (ripe plantain fried in batter) but with only a small percentage of the grease.
Alas, it turned out to be extremely exhausting work for relatively little return (with a 100% mark-up, we were making about ten cents per pancake, which meant a total net income of only about $200 for all that effort. Carmen vowed never again to slave over a hot stove making pancakes, and thus ended the enterprise. The item was so popular that if we had been more enthusiastic and competent entrepreneurs we probably could have set up shop somewhere in Playas and a made a go of it. But Carmen’s career as a poet and mine in the plastic arts were too important for us to give up to the full time retail pancake business.
Probably, no not probably, rather certainly, the most unlikely career that either I or anyone who knows me well ever would have foreseen for myself is that of a career in the plastic arts. I am one of those people who cannot draw maturely and realistically. It has always amazed me how those who indeed are able to draw realistically can get things to look like they really are, that is, with shading, shadowing, nuances, textures, perspective, etc. It always has been and still remains beyond my ken. Nevertheless, the fact that I have sold more artwork in the short period I have been at it than say, someone like Vincent van Gogh in his entire life, cannot be denied. I may not be a very good artist – that is not for me to say – but having achieved a degree of earnings from my work, it follows that it is a profession and not a hobby.
How then did I come to dedicate a large amount of time an effort doing art? It begins with my addiction to crossword puzzles, something with which Carmen could not abide. Even though I considered it to be a worthwhile endeavor in that it keeps your mind sharp and helps expand vocabulary, I have to admit that an addiction is an addiction, the nature of which isolates one from his or her immediate social reality and demands increasing dosages of the drug. When Carmen insisted I drop doing crosswords and take up something creative and productive, I answered that I have no creative skills. Her response was the Spanish equivalent of “phooey.”
To get her off my back, I made what I thought would be a humorous and infantile drawing. In it I showed a crossword puzzle book opened up, I added human characteristics (arms and legs), and had it crucified on a cross. I called the drawing, “Crucigrama Crucificada,” (Crossword Crucified), which I thought had a nice ring to it in Spanish. The reaction I got from her was the opposite of what I expected. Instead of her saying that it was pretty bad art, she commented that it indeed showed a lot of creativity and that I should continue drawing.
Now I always have been an inveterate doodler. At interminable Metro Council meetings, to avoid being bored to death, I would doodle on the margins of the book length agendas with which we worked. I sat next to Howard Moscoe, a former art teacher, and looked at his much more sophisticated doodles with envy. Nevertheless, I do get a pleasant sensation from holding a writing instrument in my hand and marking on paper. So I began drawing crude figures then dividing them into smaller random shapes and filling in the spaces. I found this almost therapeutic, and the designs that emerged were sometimes pleasant to my eyes.
So I made a number of pen and ink drawings, and had three or four which I liked the best framed and hung in our living room (our living room was then and is now a virtual art gallery; at the time it was filled with art work given to Carmen by friends, and I thought it would be nice to see something I had done hanging on our walls). I thought not much more about it, although I continued my doodle/drawing with considerable enjoyment. Until one fine day came to visit us Jimmy Saltos, a friend of Carmen and an established painter. He singled out my drawings on the wall and asked who did them. He felt they would make excellent designs for T-shirts, so we bought a couple hundred of blank T-shirts and took them along with four of my drawings to a silk-screener in Guayaquil.
As with my hotcakes, they sold like hotcakes; but after exhausting the market that consisted of friends and relatives, it became clear that a huge investment would have to be made to mass produce them for a commercial market, and we lacked the financial resources for either production or marketing. However, in the process of looking for a silk-screen workshop for the T-shirts, we showed my drawings to another artist friend of Carmen, Walter Paéz, who at the time was in charge of a silk-screen workshop for fine art at the Municipal Museum in Guayaquil. He invited me to participate in the workshop, where the two silk-screen prints that I produced were selected for exhibition at the Museum. Believe it or not, I said to myself, I am on my way as an artist. An artist!
I next participated in an etching workshop with Arnold Sicles from Quito, and my two etchings were exhibited as well. From there I worked with Walter Paéz with additional techniques of print art: woodcut, linoleum, and colography. This meant spending a lot of time in Guayaquil since there are no printing presses in Playas, and spending time in Guayaquil has always been a problem for me because of its oppressive climate, pollution, noise and traffic. One weekend while I was home alone in Playas I discovered some oil painting supplies of Carmen’s, and I started to experiment. Painting, I soon discovered, was not only something I could enjoy doing, but it was also possible to do it in my own backyard. Since then I have dedicated all my efforts at painting, mostly in oil and a bit in acrylic.
My artwork has been used for the covers of a novel and four volumes of poetry, including Carmen’s “Aguaje,” which also contained my illustrations. My work has been exhibited in Ecuador and Canada, and although I don’t expect to ever be able to make a full time living doing art, it pays the utilities.
I’ve already mentioned the three months I spent replacing the English who had resigned teacher at the high school in Playas that was operated by the Catholic University in Guayaquil. Although I enjoyed especially being around and able to corrupt those fun loving, curious, and hormone charged teen-agers and was offered the position of Chairman of the English Department (which would have consisted of myself and two other non-native speaking teachers), I declined. The school administration was careless and corrupt, I was underpaid and cheated out of part of my salary, and I didn’t want to commit myself to full time work in any case.
Since then (late 2005, early 2006), I have had the opportunity to do some short-term contract work in Toronto. I lobbied the Toronto City Council on behalf of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee to increase its commitment to heat reduction services in the blistering summer months; and I served as the Accreditation Coordinator for the Adler School of Professional Studies.
For the former I reluctantly agreed to the proposal put to me by my third ex-wife, Cathy Crowe. At my very first Metro Council meeting in the fall of 1987 I introduced a motion whereby the Council would ask the senior levels of government to declare homelessness a national disaster and provide resources required to meet the crisis. The motion was not taken seriously at the time. Cathy was later to co-found the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC), and not only did she stick-handle a similar resolution through the Toronto Council, but was able to achieve its adoption by municipal councils across Canada.
Cathy wanted me to meet with selected members of the contemporary Council, many of whom had been my colleagues back then. The subject was the deepening public health crisis engendered by the increasingly oppressively hot summer weather. Because we are still friends, and because I have such a high degree of respect for what she has achieved as a perhaps Canada’s most influential anti-poverty activist, I was not able to refuse, notwithstanding that I had little desire to return to City Hall on any kind of official business.
The upshot was that I was pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed the assignment. Not only were the great majority of the Councillors with whom I spoke receptive to the TDRC’s indicatives, but I was received with more respect and warmth than I would have expected, and not only by Councillors but as well by other City employees with whom I had worked all those years ago. I was later told by Cathy that my “lobbying” efforts yielded results, and that many of the measures that TDRC had proposed were adopted by the Council for summers to come.
I did more substantial work for Linda Page, my first ex-wife and the mother of my children both in 2006 and 2007. Linda owns and operates the Adler School of Professional studies, with which she has been associated in various roles since the late 1970s. The school’s main program is one that offers a Master’s degree in Psychology, a program oriented toward mature students and those who are considering a change of career. Courses are given on week nights and weekends. The degree had previously been recognized by the government by way of the school’s association with the Adler Institute in Chicago. Now it is submitting an application to the government to be accredited to confer the degree in its own right. The application ran to several thousand pages and covered every imaginable aspect of post-graduate education, from the academic to the financial. It was several years in the works, and I was hired to coordinate the final phase of compiling the application and preparing it for submission.
The application consists of three major parts: A Review of the Organization, the Academic Aspect, and Compliance with Legal Requirements. Each part contained numerous sections. It was my job to ensure that each section was completed, that it met the guidelines put forth by the government, and that it was consistent and contained no technical errors. It was submitted in the fall of 2007, and the final outcome will not be known for several months.
I should mention as well the work I did in 2007 as a volunteer for the project which as directed by my wife, Carmen Váscones. The Circles of Recreation and Learning Project is financed by the Ecuadorian government and delivered in Playas through a grant given to the municipal government. It provides enrichment activities (education, play, nutrition and health promotion) for pre-school children in marginal neighborhoods. It is somewhat similar to the long-standing Headstart program in the States. In Playas, the project serves nearly eleven hundred children, ages 3-5, in some forty centers in Playas and the surrounding area.
Carmen had been hired to rescue the project, when it was about to lose funding due to a dismal beginning. She stayed for 18 months, and supervised three assistants, a comptroller, and eighteen “facilitators” (teachers), all women. She provided inspired leadership and got the project back on its feet, but she was able only to achieve this by working 80 hour weeks, often seven days a week; and she had to put up with shoddy administration by the City officials in charge of the overall project.
She also would not have been able to achieve what she did without my taking on two jobs: full time house husband and full time project volunteer. For the latter, I served as her personal secretary, and I was the project’s unofficial chauffer and photographer. I also helped out with administration and the development of graphic materials.
Well, there you have it. I think I have covered all of the various jobs and careers in which it has for the most part been my privilege to serve. I suppose I should add that all through these years I have done a fair amount of writing, everything from grant applications to administrative reports to oped opinion articles. In the last few years I have tried to make a break-through as a free lance writer, with some small success. I have had opinion pieces published in the Los Angeles Times, the Toronto Star, Guayaquil’s El Universo, and Podium, the publication of Guayaquil’s Universidad del Espirtu Santo; and I have written several articles for the Marxist-Humanist periodical, News and Letters. I have proof edited an intellectual biography of the Philosopher-Activist, Raya Dunayevskaya for its author, Eugene Gogol.
When I was in my senior year at UC Berkeley, most of my friends who were graduating were going onto graduate studies. My religious fervor at the time lead me to a single graduate year at the Princeton Theological Seminary; but when I think of the career that had most attracted me, it would have been Law. My “big brother” at the time, Garold Raff, advised me strongly to go out into the world and get some real life experience, then come back and do law school. I took the first part of his advice, but I never came back. I think Law would have been a compatible career for me, but I have no regrets with respect to the roads I have taken.
When people ask me what I do for a living I usually say that I do artwork, since that has been the most consistent activity for me over the past dozen or so years. But to answer the question posed in the title of this essay, “what do I want to be when I grow up?” I suggest two possibilities. One is that I may never grow up. The other is that I have still not conducted a major symphony orchestra or practiced brain surgery, so there is still the possibility that new and interesting career horizons loom in my future.