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.
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.”