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Posted on August 27, 2012 by

NAMING EMMA

The year my daughter was born, SEIU Local 399 in Los Angeles had a high-profile contract dispute with Kaiser Permanente, the giant HMO.  Dispatched from Washington D.C. to help the L.A. local were some of SEIU’s best and brightest organizers and strategists.

It was 1993, two years before SEIU President John Sweeney would lead a hostile takeover of the AFL-CIO.  Widely regarded at the time as the Labor Movement’s best hope, Service Employees International Union had resources, talent and a track record. Its Justice for Janitors was a model for audacious action and an inspiration to Labors “new guard” advocates of immigrant organizing and militant tactics.

I was brought on board to write daily negotiation “bulletins” for Local 399 members at Kaiser. A great assignment and a complement to newsletter work I was already doing for HERE, the hotel workers union which, though smaller and poorer, was matching SEIU stride for stride – rebuilding locals in, among other places, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

I was eager to see the Sweeney team in action and was pulled in head first. By attending morning strategy meetings and late-night bargaining sessions, I could shape and deliver the union’s message to Local 399 members at the hospitals. It was an important campaign, a big step up my learning curve and my chance to watch how SEIU would “save” the Labor Movement.

And the Labor Movement was where I belonged.

Before I started working with unions, I was trying to make my way as a public relations consultant, teaming up with agencies to get publicity for companies and their executives. But I was troubled by the idea that my success would help only those at the top.  Worried that I was surrendering my principles in the Reagan Years, I was drawn to the Labor Movement where I could apply what I knew in a cause which matched my values.

Labor / management confrontations are intense and exhausting.  There’s so much at stake.  The union is risking its relationship with the employer and trying to win the loyalty and trust of its members.  The power of the union and the economic interests of the workers hang in the balance.

To build its base among health care providers, it was critically important for SEIU to come out strong in this struggle with Southern California Kaiser.  Though I had a relatively modest role, I believed in the plan, felt connected to the SEIU operatives and dedicated to the union members who were putting themselves on the line.

Like many people swept up in big projects, however,  I had a problem.  Hoping to devote as much time as I could to the campaign, I had a very pregnant wife at home who needed my help. L.A. in the early 90s was a front-line city in what could be a revitalizing Labor Movement, but Debbie and I were getting ready for our second kid and another home birth.

Thirty months earlier, Isaac had been born in the bedroom of the apartment we rented in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood in West L.A.  We had turned to home birth during Debbie’s first pregnancy when she began attending pre-natal yoga classes at the nearby Sikh center.  The so-called “white Sikhs” (white-turbaned mostly Caucasian converts to the religion) welcomed us into a very nurturing network of birthing coaches and practitioners.  The director of this growing enterprise was an American-born woman renamed Gurmukh, who would gain stature in Los Angeles as the “yoga teacher to the stars” and now runs workshops around the world.

Though we weren’t about to join the cult, we did decide to snub traditional hospital delivery and maternity practices and sign-on as home-birthers.  Debbie and I bonded throughout the process, preparing for the event and defending our choice to skeptical family and friends.

Home Birth One turned out to be quite an ordeal with our first-born lingering face-up (posterior) in the birth-canal for a day-and-a-half before flipping over and finally slipping free.  I played a central role in this drama but I’ll hold off on those details for now.

Preparations for the second birth didn’t require as much time and effort.  We already knew the routine.  But that wasn’t the only reason I was less involved in the days leading up to delivery.  It was hard for me to clear-out early while my SEIU colleagues worked late into the night.  Organized Labor and Debbie’s labor were colliding and I was feeling guilty at both ends.

Though serious problems between Debbie and me were looming just ahead, Home Birth Two went very smoothly.  After an abbreviated three-hour labor by the mom, the baby was born in the bedroom as planned with the midwife, her assistant and me doing our part.  Delighted that our girl had come out so nicely, Debbie and I woke up Isaac at 3:00 a.m. to introduce “what’s her name.”

Despite some unfinished business at home,  I would soon be back at  SEIU.

The Kaiser campaign had been in full swing. There was a one-day strike with lots of media coverage and ongoing research by SEIU to identify where Kaiser was “vulnerable.”  The union was building a case that the HMO was not fulfilling its community and legal obligation for emergency care and was also preparing to urge Southern California unions to pull Kaiser as a medical plan option.

Though I was learning from SEIU, I was also watching smart managers and executives counter the union by warning employees – our members – that their local was out to damage their employer’s reputation and chase away patients. At the table, Kaiser negotiators would assert that we couldn’t hurt them enough to change their contract proposals.

The company knew that SEIU had not and could not adequately prepare its members for a long strike. Kaiser had been union for decades. In fact, World War II ship and aircraft builder Henry Kaiser originated the HMO idea to keep the workforce healthy, productive and on-the-job. Kaiser’s network of enterprises, including its massive steel mill in Fontana near San Bernardino (which shut down decades ago), were unionized as a matter of course in the 1940s and 1950s.

Southern California Kaiser hospital workers were accustomed to a bureaucratic style of representation.  Upgrading a “legacy” union into a fighting one wouldn’t happen overnight. Saving the Labor Movement wasn’t going to be easy.

Back at my desk at work, three or four days after my daughter’s birth, I was on the phone with my wife.  She was recovering quickly and our newborn – and her 2 ¾ year old brother – were doing fine.  But something was wrong.  The baby still didn’t have a name.

Next to me in the office was Local 399’s communications director, Tom Ramsay, who overheard my end of the conversation with Debbie as we tossed around a few options.

Tom jumped at the chance when I brought him into the conversation.

“You’re Jewish right?” Ramsay asked.

I assured him that I was.

“How about Emma?” he suggested, “after Emma Goldman.”

“How about Emma?” I repeated on the phone to Debbie.

I knew a little of Goldman’s biography. Particularly memorable was her portrayal by Maureen Stapleton in Reds, the 1981 film directed by and starring Warren Beatty. When I came home later, we looked up Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940) in the Almanac.

What a resume…

Russian-born American anarchist, renowned Jewish atheist, convicted World War I pacifist,  “free love” advocate and union activist.

The stalemate was broken.

Partly in honor of this proto-feminist, Emma took Debbie’s last name, Bornstein. This would lead in the future to some ambiguity (in school, for example) over Emma and Isaac’s sibling status.  But I’ve defended that choice as a repudiation of marital-based gender bias.

The Local 399 campaign would end with a “face-saver” for the union. But the bloody battle had its payoff down the road. Two years later, John Sweeney left SEIU to become president of the AFL-CIO. In 1997 he negotiated a partnership pact with Kaiser which enables “joint decision making” and helps the HMO market to union members across the nation.  I’ve always believed that our campaign set the stage for this peace treaty.

In recent years, there’s been upheaval in SEIU’s health care divisions but that’s another story.

The Kaiser campaign – despite its flaws – was hard fought and a serious struggle; something I would see more of in the 1990s and beyond.  And, of course, I’ll always appreciate the special circumstances of this contract battle, which brought into our family an Emma of our own.

JEWS, BLACKS AND UNIONS

A member of the American Federation of Teachers [AFT] since 1989 when I taught my first class for the L.A. Trade Tech Labor Center, I grab every chance I can to talk about the New York local of that union and its former leader Albert Shanker.

I was in high school in Brooklyn when Shanker lead a series of strikes to force the New York Board of Education to back-off plans to allow neighborhood school districts to hire and fire teachers.

Community control over public schools was a huge issue in the late ’60s in the city and culminated in all-out war between the largely Jewish UFT [United Federation of Teachers] and community leaders in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, an African-American neighborhood about five miles east of where I went to school.

The strike had tragic consequences for black-Jewish relations, the city and its labor movement.

A considerable majority of New York’s public school teachers in the ‘60s had been raised in union families; their parents and relatives part of the city’s blue-collar workforce of the ’40s and ’50s in garment, manufacturing, food processing, retail and transportation.  When African-American parents and activists – tired of inferior educational conditions – sought to change union rules over matters like teacher transfer rights and seniority, UFT members stood firm.  They knew the meaning and power of union solidarity.

Many Jewish teachers were also offended that black parents didn’t trust them to teach their kids.  After all, many of them – including Shanker – had been deeply involved in the civil rights struggle and were politically liberal or even radical.

I was only vaguely aware at the time of what these strikes were about but my parents likely supported the union.  In fact, my mother worked as a typist for the School Board’s Brooklyn headquarters on Court Street and – I believe – was a member of AFSME District 37, led by one of the city’s most powerful union leaders, Victor Gotbaum.

My parents favored desegregation as long as their son wasn’t forced to leave the neighborhood.  Bensonhurst Junior High School served second and third generation white working-class Eastern European Jews, Italian and Irish Catholics.  I walked across the street to 7th grade in 1963 while – for the first time – black kids came in by bus.  There was some racial tension and minor violence in the classrooms, the hallways, the playground and on nearby streets (I got into a few fights; nothing serious) but this version of “integration” suited many “white ethnics,” especially Jewish families.

Five years later, Ocean Hill-Brownsville parents and community leaders, frustrated by under-resourced schools in their neighborhood and spurred to action by a growing “black power” ethic, tried to replace white teachers.  Shanker and the UFT would have none of it, insisting that teacher placement be based on civil service test performance and not on a subjective evaluation by locally elected boards and administrators.

Was this a case of the union protecting “white privilege” against a legitimate effort by African-Americans to take responsibility for their kids’ education?  Or was the UFT the principled actor, defending the job rights of its members, many of whom entered the profession dedicated to equal opportunity for racial minorities?

In The Strike that Changed New York, written ten years ago, Jerald Podair takes on these complicated and confusing issues, filling in what I couldn’t understand or appreciate back then.

I would leave Brooklyn and its troubles in 1971 for Vermont, the whitest of all states.  I wasn’t escaping racial tension, I told myself, but the overall insanity of urban America.  I was, I suppose, exercising my white privilege.

Twenty years after Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Bensonhurst made big news.  Deteriorating racial conditions exploded when a group of Italian teenagers attacked – and one shot and killed - black 16-year old Yusuf Hawkins who came into the neighborhood to look at a used car.  That triggered months of racially-charged marches followed by a second-degree murder conviction of the shooter.

Press characterizations of Bensonhurst in the late-’80s (I was already well-settled in L.A.) as working-class Italian-American and conservative showed, among other things, the out-migration of the neighborhood’s Jews.  Many of the Jewish kids of my generations had deserted Bay Parkway and 86th Street for Brooklyn Heights, the “city,” Long Island, Westchester and Rockland Counties, rural New England and California.

Podair, in fact, argues that before Ocean Hill-Brownville, New York’s Jews self-identified as a minority but that the episode sealed our assimilation into the white majority and enabled the city’s turn to the political right.

In some ways, certainly, Albert Shanker fit that mold.  He left UFT to become head of the nation-wide American Federation of Teachers in 1974, where he continued to advocate militant tactics to organize new members and defend contracts.  But he was also what we came to call a “cold war liberal”  for his support of the war in Vietnam.  In the ’80s his battle scars had begun tilting him further to the right and he was suspected of being a closet republican.  He died in 1997.

If I felt smug about escaping the ethnic parochialism of the “outer boroughs” and then for leaving behind racially-sterile Vermont, I hadn’t yet been confronted with the terrifying spectacle of L.A.’s urban uprising.

Holding my infant son outside our apartment in the Pico-Robertson section of West L.A.in 1992, I had a wide angle view of at least three arson fires, including the nearby La Cienega shopping center.

Acquittal in Simi Valley of the white cops who brutalized Rodney King set off this uprising, 28 years after the Watts riots.  Driving around two days later, I saw combat-ready civil and military authorities holding rifles and automatic weapons, giving these streets the look of a third-world nation after a coup.  In my early forties, I was becoming more aware of the forces shaping racial life in Southern California.

How could this happen in a “post-racial city” with a black mayor?  Tom Bradley was, in fact, a towering figure who politically realigned Los Angeles by coalescing the region’s African Americans, union members and Jews.  But when he lost the governor’s race to underdog Republican George Deukmejian in 1982, the wind left Bradley’s sales.

Unable to reform LAPD, which patrolled black neighborhoods like an “invading army” (remember the battering ram and the choke-hold?), Bradley – who had risen to police lieutenant in the department before entering politics – lost control of the situation and the city.

The L.A. labor movement argued persuasively that the decline of the region’s unionized industrial base contributed to the frustration and desperation in that community.  Income and opportunities among African Americans had risen substantially from the ’40s – when tens of thousands of black families came here from Louisiana and Texas to work in the war industries – through the ’70s when the auto, steel and tire plants left town for good.  The enormous job losses in the ’80s displaced and forced into poverty thousands of working-class blacks.

For an eye-opening account of the economic devastation suffered by Southern California’s black families, read Josh Sides’s L.A. City Limits, African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present published in 2003. (Employment, housing and other forms of discrimination against Latinos, Asian-Americans and poor white migrants are also, of course, part of L.A.’s story.)

California-bound American and immigrant Jews faced prejudice too but had greater access to the region’s assets.  It’s an exaggeration, I think, to assert that Jews and blacks have had a shared experience in the U.S.  When my grandparents “moved up” by leaving the ghetto in New York’s lower east side for the southern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge and Borough Park, no one was waiting for them with baseball bats.  When Jewish men enlisted and were drafted into the service in World War II, they weren’t forced into segregated units.

Jews have enjoyed expansive opportunities for financial, professional and intellectual development in the U.S. But Jewish identity obviously does pass on a particular sensitivity around issues of oppression and hate.  After all, the European Holocaust occurred less than a lifetime ago.

I’ve been especially vulnerable, for example, to Black Nationalist rhetoric which insinuates Jewish culpability in racial inequality and injustice.  As a progressive Jewish labor-activist rooted in the American working-class, it takes quite a bit to trigger my resentment.  I recall being quite offended, though, by Khalid Muhammad of the Nation of Islam in a speech at Howard University in 1994.  It wasn’t his anti-Semitic remarks which wounded me but the snickering reaction among some in the audience, which I presumed – rightly or wrongly – included some in the African American academic elite at this prestigious black college. Muhammad would eventually forfeit his status as “the Nation’s” number two man behind Louis Farrakhan and would die at 53 in 2001.

Obviously, I have some tender spots around my ethnic identity.

I can locate some of my own history and trajectory on race in the recently published political memoir by progressive journalist Joan Walsh.  What’s the Matter with White People traces her working-class roots as an ethnic minority Irish-American.  As her family becomes more assimilated, she recalls, they increasingly identify with the growing conservative Catholic majorities of the ’60s and beyond.

Walsh is compassionate toward those in her family who drifted to the right and offers a very smart critique of how changing times affected them.  Except for her dad – the central character of the narrative who maintains a fierce commitment to progressive principles and civil rights – other relatives including her mom become more and more susceptible to the subtle and divisive racially-charged demagoguery of  Nixon and Reagan.

Income inequality is worse now than it was in the ’70s and ’80s but racial division are narrowing with each generation.  Working and middle class Americans  - told over and over that there’s not enough to go around – may be harder to fool this time.

JEFF STANSBURY – MAKING LABOR HISTORY

I wrote this post for The Stansbury Foruma site honoring the work and spirit of union activist, writer, friend and mentor Jeff Stansbury who died in 2008.

Five years in Los Angeles and I was still suffering from the region’s alienating social atmosphere.  I had a few good friends, a new relationship and some interesting work under my belt in sales, journalism and PR.  But I couldn’t shake the sensation that people in L.A. keep their distance and that there was something innately “asocial” about this place.

As I’ve explained, the labor movement was the tonic for my personal crisis.  Southern California’s sprawl, materialism and hyper-individualism became less of a preoccupation when I started working with unions.  I was finally giving up my fantasy of heading back to Vermont and could concentrate my mind on universal themes:  big stuff like ethnic and class roots, human identity and history.  I’d found an institution with a mission I could run with and a cast of characters I could relate to, learn from, like and admire….

None more than Jeff Stansbury, who I met in the late 1980s at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) hall across from MacArthur Park near downtown L.A.  Jeff and his cohorts were busy trying to figure out how to revive a union which was bleeding members and losing contracts.

Organizing Latino immigrant workers and pressuring employers was a central challenge and one which the L.A. Labor Movement was beginning to take on.  Among other things, Jeff was running a citizenship campaign.  But the ILG – hampered by the decentralized garment industry and capital flight – would not share in that larger service-sector success story.

On first impression, Stansbury – black beard, suspenders – looked like a lumberjack.  The conversation I can’t remember but I bet it touched on our roles as labor “writers.”  I would soon find out how much that title applied to big Jeff.

At the time, I had broken through on a few union projects: helping a small and soon-to-be extinct union win a contract fight by pounding the employer with workplace discrimination charges; and conspiring with the top leadership of a high-profile local to defeat an intransigent secretary-treasurer in an internal election.

Though able to contribute to the cause a modern approach (for 1988) to communications and PR, I didn’t have a union background.  I hadn’t come in as a “colonizer” to radicalize factory workers, or even directly from another progressive movement.  My new union friends would orient and help me think through what I was doing.

Stansbury, I would learn, was extraordinarily gifted in blending and personifying working-class and progressive values.  During the 60s and 70s when unions and environmentalists were battling over air and water pollution from manufacturing, Jeff was writing about coalitional strategies.  He worked successfully to mobilize broad-based opposition to “right to work” in Missouri in 1977.  And he was instrumental in expanding coverage of a UAW newspaper to include cross-boarder issues.

In fact, Jeff would bring me into a union newsletter project in the early ’90s.  By then, he had made another of his legendary segues across the labor spectrum.  Stansbury had joined the western region research staff of HERE (Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees) which was doing excellent work de-coding the complex hospitality industry of Southern California and beyond.  (Many of these “researchers” would go on to become central players in developing the union’s national organizing campaigns).

I had already picked up a few assignments to develop publications and was delighted when asked by the new regime at HERE Local 11 in Los Angeles to start-up, write and edit a bi-lingual union newspaper.  An innovative feature of Noticias Del Local 11 News - which caught Jeff’s eye – was how English and Spanish were seamlessly integrated onto each page (I worked with a professional translator).

Stansbury liked what had been done at Local 11 and invited me to work with him on a prototype newsletter for HERE’s  Las Vegas local.  For the next year or so, he and I made several trips together, flying Southwest from Burbank to Vegas, meeting with elected leaders, staff and activists to enlist buy-in for what would be called Union Pride.  Our travels together gave me the chance to listen to Jeff’s stories about his work and life and to learn first-hand from this brilliant, dedicated and endearing guy.

I was in my 40s and a new parent.  Seventeen years older with adult children, Stansbury had some thoughts on how to maintain a commitment to the movement and your family.  Jeff also gave perspective to my political views and “radicalism” which was rooted in 60s and 70s protests and counter culture.  Stansbury’s working-class consciousness was earnest and authentic and helped me re-locate my own.

He had been active in the movement when ideological divisions over the cold war and the role of the labor left were still being fought-out.  But I never saw Stansbury become strident or condescending.  His temperament and demeanor were remarkably steady.  His eye was on the big picture.  He understood that history moves in long sweeping curves.  And Jeff knew his history.

He and I collaborated on a chapter of a 1992 book called The New Labor Press – Journalism for a Changing Union Movement (published by Cornell’s ILR Press).

Our article was titled Beyond English: The Labor Press in a Multicultural Environment.

I gave the piece some punch.  He gave it its depth.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when unions were central to the lives of immigrant workers, it would have been inconceivable for the garment workers not to have published their newspaper in Yiddish, the granite workers not to have published theirs in Italian, or the butchers not to have published in Polish. 

Yet today, with millions of union members and potential members in the United States who have emigrated from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, India and other countries, the newspapers and newsletters published by U.S. unions appear, with isolated exceptions, only in English.

That pre-internet assessment of labor communication expressed Jeff’s belief that unions must be inclusive and expansive; and that to see into the future, we must look back to the past.

Jeff’s “retirement” plan, as we know, involved an extraordinary project: a PhD in history from UCLA and a colossal dissertation focused on the workers – and their unions – who built the L.A. Aqueduct and operated the city’s municipal water supply and electrical system in the first years of the 20th century.

When finished, he wanted to teach labor history in community college.

Sadly, he didn’t get that chance.

I’ve been lucky over the past few years to teach a course through L.A. Trade Tech’s Labor Center called “Labor in America” aimed at students with no union background.  It would have been great if Stansbury had been around to inspire them as he did me.

Finally, Jeff and I had in common a history and deep affection for Vermont.  He spent his last years chopping wood and shoveling snow in Middleton Springs where he and Gretzel lived in a beautiful house designed by their son.

My kids and I visited a couple years after they moved east.  Here was my friend and mentor – the guy who had helped me come-of-age in L.A. – finishing up his last great project in a state we both loved.

A YEAR AT THE POST OFFICE

Scooting around town in a postal service jeep collecting mail in rural New England was one of the best jobs I ever had and stabilized me at a pivotal time in my life.  But was I just borrowing a working-class persona to bolster my fragile identity?

As a nonunion postal clerk in Brattleboro, Vermont, I earned the starting hourly pay of a regular employee but without benefits or representation rights. Hired by the local postmaster to staff a new plan to consolidate and then automate mail sorting, I was brought on with other “casuals” straight from the unemployment lines.

Though the civil service process was bypassed, we were paid nearly triple the minimum wage. This would supposedly inhibit postal service management from filling full-time permanent positions with guys off the street.

To be clear, I was not a scab. There was no labor dispute or picket line. The union didn’t like local postmaster hiring, but the system allowed it.

These jobs were mostly being doled out “patronage” style to families who’d been around Southern Vermont and New Hampshire for generations.  When I learned about the work, I tracked down Brattleboro postmaster Harvey Dix and stopped by his office every day for a week until he told me to report the next afternoon.

I was 26 and had lived in Southern Vermont for nearly five years.  But I had been less than successful in my recent career as a “helping professional.” A counselor at a group home for delinquent teenage boys, I couldn’t project enough authority to keep these kids in line. I recall spending much of my time and energy rounding them up for meals and bedtime. Therapy, such that it was, consisted largely in teaching and modeling “impulse control,” which – at the time – was not among my strengths.

I just didn’t have the chops to control troubled 16 and 17-year-olds with criminal records (mostly breaking and entering, auto theft and/or drug possession).  There was an “incident” one night with a few of them sneaking off to steal a car.  I left the job after eight months and was washing dishes at a motel restaurant when I joined the P.O.

What could be better than sorting mail by hand in Brattleboro,Vermont in 1977 for $6.50 an hour plus overtime?

Under the rules, I was allowed two 89-day shifts per calendar year. The job would last nearly 12 months and consisted mostly of sitting on a stool facing a slotted cabinet, sorting tray after tray of of letters.  The primary tool of the trade was a rubber finger tip for my right thumb. Before long I would learn the zips for many of Vermont’s 246 towns and cities from White River Junction 05001 to Norton 05907.

I had moved to Vermont in September, 1971 – sight unseen – to attend Windham College in Putney. I didn’t even know what fall foliage was. (I’d only been north of  New York City during summer months: in the mid 1960s for six week sessions at Jewish “sleep-away” camp and when I hitchhiked to Canada after I graduated high school). Noticing that the mountains all around seemed to be lighting up, I asked somebody what was going on. I learned for the first time that leaves in New England change color this time of year.

Twenty miles north of the Massachusetts border, Putney fit the bill as a cute rural New England town but what I didn’t expect – and what I would come to love about Vermont– was its curious mix of parochial and cosmopolitan culture.

In the middle of the village was the Putney Paper Mill which had  been manufacturing paper products – napkins, towels and wrap – for generations.  Nearby was Basketville, a throwback tourist destination and showcase for hand-woven products once used by local farm families for harvesting, hauling and storing. Basketville continued to do a nice business in the modern era selling laundry and picnic baskets of all shapes and sizes.

But this was no backwater region and Putney showed its other face on the outskirts of town: the Experiment in International Living, a pioneer in cross-cultural education; the Putney School, accommodating the sons and daughters of the well-to-do from coast-to-coast; and Windham College where students like me could bond with a highly-qualified faculty.

With the completion of Interstate 91 in the early 1960s, Southern Vermont had become more accessible and attractive to out-of-staters. Just two hours from Boston and four from New York City, investors and builders were enticing farmers to sell-off dairy land to commercial strip developers. But for a variety of reasons – including aggressive statewide land-use protections – Southern Vermont would not go the way of Connecticut and New Hampshire. The quaint towns and villages clustered around Brattleboro – Putney, New Fane, Guildford, Dummerston, Marlboro, Westminster– had too much cache. There was a “way of life” at stake.

To be “neighborly” in Vermont was not just cliché.  Despite a rural New England stoicism and reserve, people in these towns tended to be very respectful of each other in everyday situations.  I was not only impressed by the common decency among grocery clerks, bank tellers and others but by how Vermonters of that era tolerated what at times seemed like a counter-cultural invasion.

It wasn’t just the scenic country roads, covered bridges and hillside farmhouses which attracted young Americans from the northeast and elsewhere.  Stirring up the hopes of many social change activists was the state’s political atmosphere rooted in community democracy. The Brattleboro area in particular was gaining traction as an urban refugee hot spot where you could live modestly, renounce materialism, attend town meetings, and build your own house.

(This is not to deny or conceal Vermont’s problems. It was and remains a relatively poor state afflicted with – among other things – alcoholism, family violence and bad teeth).

By working at the Post Office on Main Street, I was taking a big step toward assimilating into the mainstream community; joining about 50 diligent postal clerks on 24/7 shifts breaking their backs to convert the Brattleboro branch into a “sorting center.” Engaged in mostly repetitious and tedious assembly-line style tasks, the working atmosphere was characteristically friendly and restrained, with lots of harmless local gossip, tasteful humor and an occasional Red Sox game on the radio to pass the time.

To get through long shifts and tiresome routine, some of my co-workers at the P.O. would, every now and then, wander out to the parking lot to “check their tires” and return to their sorting stations a little fortified.  Management tolerated this behavior and, in fact, the night shift supervisor – George – was particularly susceptible.

Though I was finding my groove sorting mail, cancelling stamps, tossing bundles of  letters into sacks, I didn’t quite match the output of the regulars.  One night, a particularly irritated and agitated George spotted me loafing and warned me that I’d better pick up the pace.

Unionized full-timers could mostly ignore him, but as a casual I was easy prey.  Afraid that George had it in for me,  I worried that my lucrative postal career would be coming to an early end.

The next day he called me up to his desk.

“You got a license,” he asked.

“What kind of license,” I answered stupidly.

“A drivers’ license,” he said.

“Yes.”

“Starting tomorrow,” George said, “you’ll do collections.”

I never figured out why George chose me over other casuals to scoot around town in a postal service jeep collecting outgoing mail.  But for about an hour each day before sorting letters, I would drive and walk through Brattleboro with my canvas and leather collection bag and a U.S. Mail Box key chain swinging from my belt.  This daily routine not only relieved some of the the stress from the repetitive indoor work, it gave a boost to my developing identity as a Vermonter.

No longer just an interloper in this region, I had become a “mail man.”  Connecting with my Brooklyn roots, I had earned my way into the adult American working class.  Here in idyllic and idealized Vermont (notwithstanding the social problems and hardscrabble life) I was proud to be a blue-collar federal employee; even if I was  just borrowing a working-class persona to survive a volatile and pivotal phase in my life.

Of course, casuals weren’t really postal workers.   Though a few of the 15 or so temporary employees would go through civil service to land permanent – unionized – positions,  I wasn’t interested in a career at the post office.  I needed the  money, appreciated the camaraderie and recognized – then and now – how the P.O. matured me and gave focus and direction to my future.

Turns out that working the night shift helped cut my career path in journalism.  My curiosity about the state – its people, culture, history, values and government – motivated me to look for local freelance writing gigs.  Vermont, I knew, was a good story.  A state with a long tradition was changing fast and there were some particular characteristics – conservationism rooted in conservatism, the last vestiges of liberal Republicanism – which were worth covering.

My break came when I wrestled an assignment from a weekly alternative newspaper based in Western Massachusetts on the demographic trends transforming the town.

The Valley Advocate was a free distribution alternative weekly, one of many regional spin-offs of  “left” press publications such as New York’s Village Voice and San Francisco’s Bay Guardian (The L.A. Weekly would launch the following year).

Ad-driven commercial enterprises, these news, arts and culture publications showcased personal liberation and radical politics.  Expanding circulation was important to the business model, while building the movement – women’s and gay rights, environmental and consumer protection – was central to the editorial mission.

The distribution core of the Valley Advocate was Amherst, Northampton, Mount Holyoke and Greenfield Mass but the publisher was expanding circulation north of the border.  For weeks, before clocking in at the P.O., I would interview local residents – oldtimers, newcomers, town officials and civic leaders – for a cover story on the mid-70s “lifestyle” makeover reshaping southeastern Vermont.

Here was my lead:

The New Age arrived in Brattleboro and Putney with packs on their back, in old Volkswagons, just passing through, to sleep in the woods. They came here to go to college, to get away from college, to get a job, to avoid one, to take acid, to visit their friends. There was plenty of room to be yourself and it was a nice place to stay and watch the season’s pass. The searchers, the ones trying to figure out how to live where the air wasn’t poisoned and the people weren’t paranoid, had discovered Vermont.

They weren’t the first.

Not too bad.  Looking back 35 years, I appreciate the effort even if it now seems a little overwrought.  I go on to outline a bit of the state’s history, its tradition of “independence, tolerance and equality” and then pose these questions:

Are Vermonters still free to conduct their own lives? And does the Southern Vermont area stand a chance to protect itself from the kind of commercial and industrial development that has homogenized so much of America?

Next, I profile the town manager and discuss issues of growth, architectural standards, tourism and crime. Then I get to the best part. I feature a long-time resident willing to talk about what it felt like when the “draft dodgers and potheads” started showing up in town. The guy was pragmatic:

There were some fights and some hard feelings, he remembers, but things calmed down pretty quickly.

A lot of the community said this is the way it’s gonna be, we may as well make the best of it. Then they found out that a lot of the hippies had money. After they got settled, they started spending it.

I finished the piece by profiling “Fritz”, the manager of the Common Ground, an archetypal, worker-owned natural food restaurant which would close forever in 2007.

I went there for lunch the day the story came out and was immediately rebuked by Fritz for mischaracterizing him in the piece as a “committed Marxist.”  On my way home after the scolding,  I was bitten by a small neighborhood dog.  Though it was just a nip, my skin was punctured and I thought it wise to stop by the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital Emergency room.  I didn’t need rabies shots but this was not a good day.

Was there a lesson in humility I was supposed to be learning?

My journalism career, however, was in gear and for the next three years I would cover local and state politics, economics and culture for many different media, including a Vermont-based weekly called the Vanguard Press.

After my year at the post office, I moved a hundred miles north to Montpelier, Vermont – the nation’s second smallest state capital with 8,000 residents – to focus on state government and politics and to cover a region which was (and probably still is) somewhat less trendy than Brattleboro / Putney.

Vermont was continuing to shift toward what we would soon call progressive and I fashioned myself as a chronicler of this movement.  Having carved out a nice niche, perhaps I could have settled comfortably on a dirt road in a small town and spent my 30s and beyond with a goat in my backyard, shoveling snow and watching my small state lead the way in green energy, gay marriage, universal health care and the election of a socialist to the U.S. Senate.

Instead, I watched from a distance.

Very specific circumstances – the end of a relationship, the death of a parent – triggered my migration 3000 miles west in 1981.

Trading inclusiveness for alienation, I left the cozy land-locked state for the sprawl and anonymity of  L.A., a city on the edge.

I still feel some remorse when I think about deserting my Vermont compatriots who carried out the mission.  Maybe I cared too much about Vermont, was being smothered by my attachment and wanted to escape before I became disillusioned with my idealized object?

In Los Angeles, I would fulfill my primal need to “belong” by reaffirming my affinity with the American working class and in the camaraderie of the labor movement.  In other words, I abandoned Vermont because I needed to craft a self-identity more consistent with my familial roots.  I could even argue that labor activism is my redemption for working nonunion at the Brattleboro Post Office.

But that would be a stretch.

 

BOOK PAGES

In “The Problem with Memoirs,” New York Times entertainment critic Neil Genzlinger reviews four books published in early 2011 by little-known writers determined to tell their stories.

“There was a time,” he begins, “when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into snapshots of a broad historical moment.”

If you’re not a genius or famous and are considering such a venture, Genzlinger lets you have it.  “Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet.  Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon,” he proclaims, “the way God intended.”

Characterizing the modern era as one of “oversharing,” Genzlinger shows little mercy for his fellow human sufferers and grumbles about memoirs which have been “… disgorged by virtually everyone who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight.  By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an underprivileged child or been an underprivileged child.  By anyone raised in the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s, not to mention the ‘50s, ‘40s or ‘30s.  Owned a dog.  Run a marathon.  Found religion.  Held a job”.

Of the four books he reviews, he hated three.  I wish Neil well when he sets out to sum up his own life in print.

Now there’s a new breed of memoirist loose on the literary world and I’m afraid I’m one of them.

A much more forgiving standard applies to bloggers, particularly those of us who write “niche” blogs.  That’s when you ruminate freely about – well – whatever you like.  There are millions – maybe billions – of these sites in the universe.  I call them “public diaries.”

In November, 2010, I wrote  that “Not long ago, diaries were private matters, rarely read by anyone except the writer.”

Grandma dies.  Family members rummage through the trunk in the attic and discover her secret journal.  It reveals personal details of a past life that no one – not even grandpa – imagined. 

Or researchers and historians scour through old diaries to glean impressions and facts about the civil war, women’s suffrage and the depression. 

But that’s all changed by the internet.  Almost everything is now available and accessible instantly and without much mystery.

I’ve considered what it means to be your own editor.  If your pieces are not being regularly aggregated, you probably serve not only as the sole contributor to your blog but also its gatekeeper.

In May, 2011, I posted Editing Yourself, in which I warned readers to “be very careful when you publish something without anybody else looking at it.”  This, I said, is “particularly true these days, when publishing means pressing a key on your computer.”

I continued:

You have to step outside yourself, read what you’ve written and decide if it’s ready to go.  You have to know when to stop flipping paragraphs, tinkering around with sentences and searching for synonyms.

Then I sprinkled in detail about my own experience:

In the past, my work as a reporter and publicist was mostly collaborative.  I had editors and had been one myself.  When I was a staff and freelance writer, I would sometimes become furious over changes others made to my “copy.”

I indirectly tackled the issue of accountability:

So now I’m a blogger: picking my subject, balancing my viewpoint, cutting out the fat. 

My biggest challenge is finding the right combination of the topical and the personal.  This post, for example, obviously leans heavily toward the personal. 

But I made a deal with my editor to let this one slide.

Recently, personal themes have become more central to my blog:

I’ve written posts about my roots in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, my political and professional formation in Brattleboro and Montpelier, Vermont and my painful transition when I was 30 to Southern California.  I’ve ruminated on my ideological and psychological attachment to the Labor Movement and disclosed details about my role as a parent and my divorce(s).

I’ve now decided to use past and future pieces as raw material and as an outline for an E-Book which I hope to E-Publish (along with some printed “hard copies”) within a year or two.

Of course I’d like to grab the attention of the Neil Genzlingers of the world, if nothing more than to have them ask: Who the hell is this guy and why on earth should we give a damn?

The current and upcoming autobiographical-style pieces will post on my home page and in a new section of my site called “Book Pages.”

Writing an E-Book won’t earn me a lot of money but will be a commercial venture.  Unknowns and first-timers are pricing low - sometimes 99 cents – to attract an audience.  Like everything else internet-related, E-Publishing is a transformational medium with ever-changing demands on those wanting to climb on board.

In the past, I’ve always been pretty good at adapting my writing to different circumstances.  I got through college by knocking out papers which alluded to the assignment, drifted dangerously off point, but then cleverly circled back to the topic at hand (a habit I still have).

As an “advocacy journalist” I explored my subject and then discreetly insert myself into the piece.

I made a living in Los Angeles by converting personal and journalistic writing into “communications.”

As a generic public relations guy, I could extract the core message from my corporate client and then put that into concise and appropriate “language.”  As a Labor Communications Specialist, I intuitively and instantly knew the idiom of “solidarity.”  This time, as a true believer.

To keep readers engaged, bloggers who aspire to be memoirists must decide what the book is about and figure out how to develop the theme and organize the material.  I’ve ruled out a chronological narration.  That would be pretentious.

(If it were fiction, character development and action would drive the plot.  The novelist can create an “everyman” persona to tell the story of a larger-than-life protagonist: Nick Carraway on Gatsby; Ishmael on Ahab.  Or he can let the reader watch the narrator in the act of self-discovery – we know more about Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield than these boys know about themselves).

What’s my literary device?

It would be useful, for example, if I could claim to have undergone a dramatic transformation of political values.  But I came of age on the left and still operate in this sphere.

Except – and maybe here I’ll stir the pot a bit – I have become more mainstream and parochial about America’s role in the world.

Like many among my generation, I spent much of my political life appalled by post-World War II intervention by the U.S.: CIA-led coups in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, support for dictators in South Korea, El Salvador and Greece; and, worst of all, by the War in Vietnam.

Historical context, which comes with age, makes those “excesses” an understandable – if not forgivable – consequence of a “liberal” foreign policy.  This view is based on the premise – which I’ve come to accept – that the Untied States saved the modern world: first by defeating Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, then by winning (I did say winning) the cold war.

Though I’m not exactly a “revisionist, ” I am, I suppose,  at odds with Howard Zinn, Noam Chompsky, Chris Hedges and maybe even Naomi Klein.

Despite my willingness to embrace  some common notions about American “interests” (distinct from corporate interests), I have mostly stayed put on the left and – in particular – kept faith, I hope, with the American working-class.

In this regard I consider myself to be quite radical, believing that the decline in American unions may be the worst thing that’s happened in this country in my lifetime.

As always, the inconsistencies in my belief system are fair game for criticism and ridicule.

 

HOLLYWOOD’S BACK DOOR

A neighborhood on the eastern edge of the L.A. basin and shorthand for the movie and television industries, Hollywood had its own city charter for fewer than ten years before being annexed by Los Angeles in 1910. By joining L.A., it gained access to the water supply then beginning to flow by aqueduct from the Owens Valley 233 miles to the north.

D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and Charlie Chaplan filmed there but now, in fact, studios and related businesses are situated throughout the Los Angeles metropolitan area with particular concentrations in Culver City, Burbank, the San Fernando Valley and – of course – the part of town known as Hollywood.

Incidentally, West Hollywood is a recently-formed municipality (adjacent to Beverly Hills), which became a separate city with 35,000 residents in 1984. This happened largely though the organizing efforts of an active gay community – including some from the movie business – which gravitated to this “unincorporated area” in the 1930s to 1970s to escape the violently homophobic LAPD.

I wouldn’t appreciate these distinctions if I didn’t live in this region. But there’s a singularly important feature about Hollywood – the industry – that is also usually overlooked. With large-scale domestic manufacturing off-shored and de-unionized, film and television production may now be the most heavily unionized sector in the American economy.

Much of the stuff (content) you watch when you go to the movies, turn on your TV, and – increasingly – access through the internet and your cell phone is union-made.

In my work in the Southern California Labor Movement, I got a look at the complicated web of unions and guilds which represent a mostly freelance workforce of actors, camera operators, make-up artists, writers, prop masters, grips, truck drivers, directors, script supervisors, stunt men and women, studio teachers and nurses.

Though the goal – to represent as many workers in the industry as possible – can be diverted by the ongoing fractious battles within and among the various labor organizations, I believe that the Hollywood guilds and unions do an admirable job of promoting and protecting the material needs of its members while containing and channeling their aspirations and frustrations.

Just consider what they’re up against.

The global corporations which control information, news, media and entertainment are among the most powerful and influential entities on the planet: Disney (ABC), Viacom (Paramount), Time Warner (Warner Bros.), Sony (Columbia Pictures) CBS (Showtime), NBC Universal (A & E) and Murdock’s News Corp. (Fox).

Why don’t these conglomerates follow the path of the rest of the corporate world and simply do away with their pesky American unions? Maybe the arcane jurisdictional structure of the Hollywood guilds are just too entrenched to untangle and discard.  Or that the status quo serves another important strata of the Hollywood “elite” – the directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, editors and others – who belong to, and help govern, these unions and guilds.

Some would argue that the global capital and technological strategies of these employers will eventually disable the unions anyway. But the fact is that film and television producers continue – at least for now – to cut deals with the collective representatives of their employees. These includes the so called “above the line” unions: The Directors Guild, The Writers Guild and the newly-merged Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists); and the “below the line” unions: The IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employee – the “IA”) the Teamsters and others.

I had no idea when I started in the Labor Movement in the 1980s that I would get my foot in the (back) door of “the business” by working with some of the entertainment industry unions and guilds.

Though I barely knew which end of the camera to look through, I was hired-on for some interesting projects by IA Local 600 – the Cinematographers Guild. This below-the-line union includes extraordinarily talented, technically brilliant and enterprising members of the camera crew who work under the Director of Photography. The DP is responsible for how the scene is lit and looks, works closely with the Director, ranks high in the industry hierarchy and can earn quite a bit of money per project.

When three regional camera locals were consolidated in the mid-1990s, I wrote and edited mail-outs to members about the merger and, among other things, helped launch a national newsletter and membership directory.

The Local 600 merger was in line with a larger trend within the IA to consolidate regional locals and various crafts. While this was taking place, the IA moved smartly to capture new work by tailoring contracts to the growing cable market, low-budget film production and – later – reality TV. Combining aggressive organizing “on the set” with hard-nosed negotiations with producers, the IA – despite its very parochial structure rooted in craft distinctions – pushed its way forward as an important force in the industry.

With few exceptions, the IATSE doesn’t run hiring halls. Getting a job – whether you’re a sound engineer, hair stylist, costumer or key grip – depends on your reputation for reliability, knowledge of the job, resourcefulness, creativity, and networking skills.

Hourly scale for many jobs on a pre, post and production crew average about $40 an hour and often include overtime and double-time pay.

Entertainment industry craft workers live in middle class neighborhoods all over Southern California. A ten or twenty year run of $85,000 – or more – gets you a decent house on a nice block.  But these camera assistants, make-up artists, set painters, script supervisors and others can regularly face dry periods in which they’re worried about losing their health benefits (not enough work-hours to qualify) – or worse – their homes.

You’re part of the rapidly-shrinking, high-wage working-class: competitive, high-pressure and subject to global economic cycles and an all-powerful industry. You tolerate intense and perpetual career anxiety in return for a premium job with intermittent high pay and a chance at a secure retirement.

Knitting this freelance universe together are the unions. Certainly some complain that their reps don’t do enough to protect them from exploitive producers or that the contracts give the bosses too much of the pie. Though serious problems do hamper this system of representation, most members clearly recognize that without a union they’d be fodder for industry abuse.

In fact, the global media giants who run these industries are always wagging their finger at the unions to remind them how eager other regions are for the work.

Nothing worries L.A.-based entertainment industry guilds more than “runaway production.” U.S. cities and states and foreign nations lure productions with tax incentives and state-of-the-art sound stages. Profit-driven capital, always seeking to reduce labor costs, pits region against region and nation against nation.

City and Southern California film promotion officials have tried to keep the work in town by, among other things, making permits for location shoots easier and calming neighborhood residents who feel invaded by film crews (in other parts of the country, a film crew on your street is an exciting occasion).

That has worked to an extent, particularly when coupled with the advantages of easy access to L.A.’s large talent pool and existing infrastructure such as visual effects and editing facilities. But the question remains: can this region compete head-on with increasingly generous incentives from North Carolina to New Zealand (complicated by the fact that location shooting in various regions in the U.S. and Canada may be covered under a union contract).

Location shooting has largely replaced the studio back lots. Seventy-five years ago, huge studios, covering thousands of acres of prime Southern California land, employed thousands of full-time workers in industrial movie-making factories. It was L.A.’s equivalent (along with the now substantially diminished aircraft and aerospace businesses) to Pittsburgh’s steel mills and Detroit’s auto plants.  The 20th Century Fox lot near Rancho Park was once several times its current size but sold much of its land to high-rise developers in what is now Century City.

Nevertheless, L.A. remains ground zero for this industry and its unionized writers, artisans and actors who give this region a creative ambiance. Talk to a costume designer or a camera operator to get a sense of what really happens on the set. You’ll find that the view from the Hollywood working class is quite distinct from the manufactured “celebrity culture,” used to sell the entertainment “product.”

Over the years when I tell friends outside the region about my high regard for the Hollywood workforce, I sometimes hear disparaging remarks about the crappy movies, worthless network one-hour episodic dramas, and laugh-track-laced, inane sitcoms. Reminds me of how much of the blue-collar, assembly-line workforce in the 60s and 70s was ridiculed for manufacturing worthless consumer goods or – worse – contributing to the “war machine.”

Keep in mind that it’s the corporate owners and producers who pander to and manipulate popular taste and appeal to the crass instincts of the entertainment consumer. The role of working-class institutions is to ensure that those who do the work get their share of the rewards.

Can you really criticize an actor who gets a central role in a McDonald’s commercial (which, if she’s lucky and the spot gets widely used, could trigger residuals which cover half of her mortgage for the next two years)?

Working with AFTRA – I helped build ties with political and labor leaders and raised money for an annual awards event – widened my view of working actors and other talented professionals in that union including broadcast journalists, radio hosts, recording musicians, sportscasters, singers and more.

I was impressed by the dedication of the staff and the considerable time and energy put in – unpaid – by elected leaders from the ranks.  The smaller of the two Hollywood actor unions, AFTRA positioned itself for the recent merger with SAG by aggressively securing contracts with TV producers after the failure of the previous merger vote eight years earlier.

Much is made of the contentious and sometimes vicious battles within and among Hollywood unions.  The Writers Guild strike of 2007, for example (which some say helped establish a more equitable residuals formula), was criticized by many in the IA for causing an overall drop in industry jobs.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I prefer to look at the “big picture” regarding these conflicts.  As I’ve watched union power diminish and disappear across the country, the infighting in Hollywood can be construed as a sign of life.  While you can argue that brutal battles inside the Labor Movement simply serve the employer class, the approval by union members of the actors’ merger shows a willingness to adapt and fight on.

Finally, there’s been a significant shift, I think, in how entertainment industry performers, artisans and skilled technicians self-identify. The threat of out-sourcing, job-eliminating technologies, and corporate consolidation has propelled many members to understand that – no matter how big they are – they’re not immune to being crushed by the system; that even in their relatively privileged positions, they have a great deal in common with the rest of the region’s working-class.

Hollywood unions in fact have become a much more significant and visible part of the L.A. Labor Movement.  Compared to 25 years ago, you’ll now find film and television union leaders and activists side-by-side at solidarity rallies with registered nurses, construction workers, fire fighters, janitors, supermarket clerks, flight attendants, housekeepers and public school teachers.

Above and below the line, unionized performers, grips, gaffers, keys and “best boys” – including many A-list actors, directors and writers – recognize the value and necessity of keeping this industry “union”.  Macro economic trends and the sheer size and power of media conglomerates will exert ongoing pressure to weaken the collective nature of this workforce.  But, for now at least, Hollywood holds the brand as America’s highest-profile union town.

 

MULTIVARIATE EXPLORATORY DATA ANALYSIS

Apartments in Santa Monica in the early 1980s were hard to find.  Residents had recently voted-in a strict rent control ordinance which limited increases on existing tenants and prevented landlords from raising rents when apartments changed hands.  It was a radical re-balancing of power in this cozy coastal community but it was also cramping the market for apartment-seekers.

New to the region, I was watching closely as progressive reformers in this small city imposed tough rules and a moratorium on residential and business development.

I wrote a few stories for the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner about what critics were calling the “Peoples Republic of Santa Monica” and wanted to stay close to the action.  How could I find my own place in this groovy Southern California enclave?

I came across a chance to share an apartment for a few months in a building on Fourth and Bicknell, just south of Pico and a ten minute walk to the beach.  It was an arrangement with someone who had secured the unit but was tied to a previous lease and couldn’t move in for nine months.  He had already lined up one occupant and I could take the other bedroom.   Even though I hadn’t met my prospective apartment-mate, I didn’t hesitate.

With my stuff already unpacked, I sat on the couch in the living room with Allen Yates – thin, good-natured, mid-thirties – who had just moved to the L.A. region.  He was an engineer with a laser light show company, had a PhD and had worked in New Jersey as a statistician for Educational Testing Service.  He was just coming out of a relationship with someone named Jean.

Good enough.

Our apartment was upstairs in a motel-style building with a pool in the middle.  From the kitchen was a straight-shot view of the Santa Monica Mountains, from the bedroom windows you looked right at the ocean.

Two hundred and twenty five dollars a month each.

Yates was hard to read.  For example, he was coy about his sexual preference and only after I saw a naked guy coming out of his bedroom in the morning did he affirm that Jean was reallyGene.  We laughed about that.  Having a gay roommate was, in fact, fine with me.  It suited my identity as a liberated and transformed man and was a fitting segue for my time served in culturally radical Vermont (with its very active gay and lesbian community in the 70s).

Yates’ love life was focused almost exclusively on young black men – who were gracious and fun-to-be-around house guests – but that was only a small part of his character puzzle. He smoked a lot of pot and when high would rev up a nearly unstoppable stream-of-consciousness narrative.  He referenced science and math but his favorite topic was a 2000-page text on the origin of the universe called the “Urantia Book.” Written by “celestial beings” it offers a spectacularly detailed explanation of – well – everything.  Here are a few samples:

  • Your world, Urantia, is one of many similar inhabited planets which comprise the local universe of Nabadon.  This universe, together with similar creations, makes up the superuniverse of Orvonton, from whose capital, Uversa, our commission hails….  At the heart of this eternal and central universe is the stationary Isle of Paradise, the geographic center of infinity and the dwelling place of the eternal God.
  • You humans have begun an endless unfolding of an almost infinite panorama, a limitless expanding of never-ending, ever-widening spheres of opportunity for exhilarating service, matchless adventure, sublime uncertainty, and boundless attainment.
  • The hope of modern Christianity is that it should cease to sponsor the social systems and industrial policies of Western civilization while it humbly bows itself before the cross it so valiantly extols, there to learn anew from Jesus of Nazareth the greatest truth man can ever hear….

Yates integrated this esoteric cosmic and spiritual analysis into his day-to-day life but I wasn’t sure how.

Frankly, it didn’t matter.  He and I got along well and liked each other’s friends.  As his “straight’ companion, we would occasionally take in the gay bar scene together.  He was generous, kind, funny, anxious and often distracted.

Sometimes at home he would jump out of the chair and announce out of the blue that he had to go to his room to work on his book.

I knew it had something to do with statistics but I suspected – and maybe worried – that my friend Allen was spinning out some very weird prose.  Could he be sitting at his desk ruminating on his own version of eternal truth?

After nine months in the Bicknell apartment, the original tenant would be coming back and neither Allen nor I wanted to live with him.  Yates moved into an adjacent unit in the same building for a while before relocating to Texas.  I left Santa Monica and would never again live in the seaside Mecca.

Five years later, I got in the mail a copy of  Multivariate Exploratory Data Analysis.

Filled with algebraic tables, charts and formulas such as Local Dependency Outlier Residuals After Collinearity-Resistant Fitting of Three Factors to Lord’s Data, Allen’s book was impossible for me to penetrate (I hadn’t been so baffled since, as a college student, I tried to read Sartre’sBeing and Nothingness).

In the prologue, Yates explains:

  • The transformation (rotation) phase of exploratory factor analysis is undertaken in an attempt to arrive at a simple, albeit substantively meaningful and theoretically informative, linear influence model relating manifest variables to their hypothetical determinants, the factors.  The basis of this search for “simple structures” is a scientific belief in the simplicity and parsimony of natural processes.

Sadly and tragically, Allen’s book came out just before he died of brain cancer.

Published in 1987, it was “a work of genius,” according to Professor Robert Pruzek of the State University of New York at Albany, a friend of Yates who helped get the book to print.

High up the food chain in the field of “psychometrics,” Pruzek – like me – regrets that Allen couldn’t be around to contribute to scientific advances enabled by computer technology.  And that he died before he and his work could gain attention on the internet.

Though I can’t comprehend the details and depth of his thinking, Yates text is his version of eternal truth.   How it squares with  Urantia I’ll never know.  Only that both, in their own way,  seek to peel down the structure of things.

What was I missing when I was privileged to be Allen’s one-man audience?

What didn’t I understand?

Here’s what I do know:

During the 1980s, Santa Monica’s elected leaders pushed the envelope of progressive governance.  After the development moratorium, “human scale” building standards were implemented, affordable units were required in new mixed-use construction and intelligent (European-style) planning spread to existing commercial zones, in particular the 3rd street promenade which would become, in the 90s, a colossal tourist destination and revenue generator.

By then the California legislature had outlawed “vacancy control” (tossing out that practice in the state’s most radical municipalities including Berkeley and Santa Cruz).  In Santa Monica, this helped trigger a boom in condo conversions and “market rate” rentals throughout the city.

The financial interests which had opposed Santa Monica’s radical governance made a killing under the progressive regime which – through its smart growth policies – had “rationalized the risk” for capital investment.

 

A DADS GUIDE TO DIVORCE

I started writing a book ten years ago about being a divorced dad.  Conceived as a guide for men in similar circumstances, I wanted to make a few key points. Above all, that it’s critically important in a failed marriage for dad to immediately turn his attention to the kids.

Dads face a particular challenge, I wrote, if the children are very young and in what I called the “maternal orbit.”

To stir up the topic, I urged my brothers to not be sidetracked by an understandable impulse to find another relationship right away.  Even if you feel hurt, disrespected and horny, it’s essential that you focus on your role as a father and your need to bond with the kids through this transition.

Sure, you want to get laid, I said.  But be careful not to get “enmeshed.”

I wasn’t advocating deprivation or chastity; just a little self restraint.  I recounted a story about two recently separated dads who were totally dedicated to their kids.  Both had put meeting women on the back burner.  I explained how one of my new pals was very good-looking and the other extremely wealthy.  My message, of course, is that if these dads could control their sexual urges, we regular guys could do likewise.

As always, I wrote in a conversational and anecdotal style, using modestly self-deprecating humor to win my audience.  My book would contrast with most of the other titles I saw which fall into this category.

The lawyer’s books for divorcing dads, for example, prepare the father for combat.  This is what you should know about state laws, family courts and current custody trends.  Useful information, to be sure, but tedious reading.

The psychologist’s books for divorcing dads offer “support” for their reader’s ordeal but, as you’d expect, could be pedantic and dreary.

My guide was supposed to be an easy-read during a stressful time.

Next, I wanted to make the case that though it’s very tempting, it’s essential that you don’t demonize the mom.

Even if you were dumped, suck it up and recognize that your ex will likely be your parenting partner for years and decades to come.  Subordinate your pain and hostility in the interest of cooperation.  Establish lines of communication, I urged.

I described how my own marriage ended with my wife leaving for another man.  Though it wasn’t quite that simple (it never is), this agonizingly painful rejection actually let me off the hook.  The fact that I didn’t initiate the separation insulated me from being branded as the bad guy.  With her focused on trying to build a new life with someone else, I could zero in on connecting with my kids.

I also outlined how, as a modern and active dad, I had already spent a great deal of time alone with my kids while the mom had worked and taken time for herself.  That gave me the confidence to handle all the parenting details alone.

But as I worked my way through the first draft of the “guide,” its problems became evident.

First of all, it was based on extensive and excessive extrapolations from my own experience (this worked for me, so you should try it).  How applicable could that be?

The other obstacle was even bigger.  Much of what I had written – diary-like musings – were completely off limits.  No way could I disclose personal details like these about my family.

Other topics were more open to the public:

I discussed with some honesty and insight my thoughts on custody arrangements.  Separating couples are sometimes very quick to develop and then “codify” the child care routine.  Many experts think it’s is a good idea to work out a fixed and reliable schedule.  Dad will have the kids Monday, Tuesday, until sundown on Wednesday, every other weekend and on those Christmases ending in even numbered years.

I threw a wrench into this approach by offering what I called a “seamless” arrangement in which I saw the kids nearly every day.  Predicated on my own flexible schedule (and my willingness to drop everything), I conceded the mom’s house as their primary residence and made the most of my role as driver: shuffling my son from school to baseball practice or picking up my daughter from a “play date” and dropping her at moms for dinner.

I think my overall message hit the mark.  I wanted my brothers to accept the fact that no matter what you try, you can’t replace the mom.  Children’s natural or even instinctive attachment to their mother must be recognized.  The father may have to take on the role – for as long as necessary – as a secondary parent.  Dads who reject, disregard or minimize this reality could be inflicting emotional damage on – and impairing their own relationship with – the kids.

But, ten years later, the particulars of my narrative seem a little naïve.  I’m more aware now of the consequences of inconsistency in raising children.  And I know plenty of divided families who survived quite nicely on a clearly-established and predictable custody plan and schedule.

Also, what I didn’t fully admit at the time was that my aversion to a standard custody arrangement was based partly on my need for the kids, their mom and I to feel and appear “normal.”  By sitting together at school plays, concerts and little league games, we could show off how well we were handling our broken family.  Don’t feel sorry for us.  We’re doing just fine.

Finally, I tried to tackle the subject of money.

I admitted right off the bat that I had dubious credentials on this matter; that, in fact, I had done a poor job managing family finances before the separation.  Nevertheless, I wanted my imaginary readers to hear me out.

Many dads freak out about alimony and child support and sometimes resort to extreme measures to hold onto what they believe is theirs.  Though maybe not the best guy to give advice on the subject, I encouraged my fellow dads to consider taking a “soft line.”

I recalled my visit to a divorce lawyer.  I had been separated for a couple of years and was renting an apartment about two miles from the house.

The kids were used to moving back and forth between my apartment and mom’s place but the house always remained home base.  That was fine with me as long as I was welcome there.  When I dropped off the kids, I explained to the divorce lawyer, I’d sometimes stay for dinner.

It was an amicable arrangement all right, but there was a hitch.  The mom wanted me to sign over all rights to this valuable piece of property on a quiet street in the Mar Vista section of Los Angeles (west of the 405 and north of Venice Blvd., three miles from the beach).

This attorney had a reputation for being tough – she had represented a friend of mine with lots of money and property in a particularly contentious divorce – but in listening to my story, she zeroed in on the good will which was central to our family arrangement.

She asked me if this was worth jeopardizing because of money.  I said it wasn’t’.  She said “then give her the house.”

I didn’t recommend that dads necessarily follow my lead, but did caution against allowing the fight over finances to poison the atmosphere.

What I tried to communicate throughout is that divorced parents can spare their kids – and themselves – considerable trauma by basing a post-marital relationship on mutual respect and sacrifice, love for the kids and, when possible, love for each other.

In the first draft of my guide, I consciously engaged in “guy talk.”  (I was, in fact, talking mostly to myself).  But when parenting status changes, you join a varied and expansive community of  divorced, widowed, gay, straight women and men.

So maybe there’s enough raw material to expand into a guide for divorced parents.  But, then again, I’m not sure what conclusions I would reach.

On the biggest question of all, I don’t have an answer.  Which does more damage?  When couples in conflict stay together “for the sake of the kids” or break up the family.

Give me another ten years to think about that one.

 

IRV’S TOP SECRETS

My father’s first wife cheated on him while he was serving in Italy in World War II.  He was an airplane mechanic and sergeant with the 9th Air Force which invaded Sicily in the summer of 1943.  I assume he worked on the P-40 Fighters which had flown over from Tunisia.

He spoke very little to me about his past.  I know a few details from the photos he took home from the war and from the patches on his uniform.  His former marriage was kept secret from me until my mother – his second wife – died of cancer in 1975.

Sitting at the kitchen table a couple of days after my mother’s funeral, my father started to laugh nervously.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“I was married before.  Before I met your mother.”

I started to laugh, too.

“What do you mean?”

He delivered the story quickly.

He got back from Europe after the war.  He found out in New York that the woman he had married before he left hadn’t been faithful.  He moved out and they divorced.

“She was always all mixed up,” he explained about his first wife.  “She became very depressed.”

There was more:  “So she put towels under the door and then turned on the oven.  And that was that.   Your mother didn’t want me to tell you.”

Now that both marriages were in the past, Irv could get the big news off his chest: that he had a wife who killed herself.   And, there was something else he wanted me to know.

“If anything happens to me, everything you need is in the box in the bank vault,” he said.  “It’s all taken care of and it’s all for you.”

He wouldn’t be worrying at his age – he was 61 – about finding another women.  “I’m not looking, let’s put it that way.  What do I need the aggravation?”

A year later, he moved into a spare bedroom with friends Buddy and Esther who lived upstairs from their grown kids and grandchildren on Staten Island.  I would visit from Vermont several times a year and was impressed with how well he was doing.  “I have it pretty good here,” he would tell me.  “I have my room, my food, my laundry.  What else do I need?”

He took the bus on weekdays to his civil service job with the New York State Insurance Fund on Church Street in lower Manhattan.  He was never a big spender, had no expensive tastes and rarely bought clothes.

Besides paying rent, he bought a new washing machine for the house, covered repairs on Buddy’s Buick, was generous with their grandkids and promised Esther he would re-carpet the entire upstairs.  Treated like one of the family, he began to act like Esther’s other husband.

I noticed small things at first.  He carried her pocketbook up the stairs and kept track of when she needed to take her pills.  He and Esther would wash the dishes together and then sit in the kitchen and laugh while Buddy smoked cigarettes in the living room and fell asleep at the T.V.

After my father died in 1981, Esther confessed:  “Irv used to tell me that he really had a problem and that I was his problem,” she said.  “Your father would make me very nervous. I would say ‘Look Irv, I already have a husband.’”

My father was hoping that Buddy – who was overweight and heavily medicated – would go first.  Buddy knew what was on my father’s mind and perhaps could even accept that Irv was waiting for him to drop out of the picture.  The fact is that Irv made Esther feel special and kept her off Buddy’s back.  And there was the money.

After my dad’s funeral, I discovered that most of it was going to Esther.

She felt guilty and was willing to talk.

I’d known her all my life.  She and Buddy lived in Bensonhurst about a mile from our apartment.  My dad was friends with them years before he met and married my mother – Sally – in 1948.  Sally resented Esther.  “You’re always running to twenty third avenue” she would say to Irv.  “Why don’t you stay home for a change?”

The two couples would vacation together at Kutshers Country Club in the Catskills.  “When the four of us went to the mountains, your mother would always tell the same story,” Esther confided to me.  “Sally would say that whenever we were all together, Irv would become very sexually aroused.  I told your mother it must be the mountain air.  So help me God, I didn’t know he felt that way about me then.”

Weeks after Irv died, Esther and I went with a tax auditor to my father’s safety deposit box.  Though its contents were now in her name – contrary to Irv’s promise to me five years earlier that “it’s all taken care of and it’s all for you” – I had become “executor” of the small estate even though I was a secondary beneficiary.

Esther would eventually relinquish some control over my dad’s accounts and belongings.   When we opened the vault box though, I was appalled – and Esther embarrassed – to find that a gold-engraved bracelet Irv had given my mother several years before had  Sally’s name rubbed off; Esther’s name was now inscribed on the piece.

Buddy and Esther would  give back some of what Irv had turned over to them, but not without a showdown.

“Sometimes a guy leaves all he’s got to a doorman or even a dog or cat,” Buddy would say later.  “I understand how you feel as a son, but Irv always said he spent the happiest years of his life here.”

I didn’t want to fight with these people.  They were decent and kind.  We were starting to work something out. But the whole matter felt a little strange and sordid.  And I was hurt – and broke.

Although I wasn’t kicking up a big fuss, a few of my relatives chimed in: according to my father’s brother’s wife, “as soon as Esther knew how Irv felt about her, she should have asked him to move out.  As far as I’m concerned” said my Aunt Lee, “they’re taking him for all he had.”

The whole matter was complicated by the fact that no relatives were present the day my father died suddenly of a heart attack.  The police had the authority to search his room and impound from his top drawer his keys, wallet and financial records.

It took weeks to get a death certificate in order to recover these items from the property clerk’s room at the 122nd precinct on the south shore of Staten Island.  I also needed to see someone from the New York State Tax Department at the World Trade Center.  The  benefit of all these complications  was that I was in control of gathering the important documents and that the delays  gave Buddy, Esther and me a chance to work out a deal without lawyers or going to court.

All the assets combined were worth about $50,000 and on paper Buddy and Esther controlled more than two-thirds.

“Ten thousand dollars in the account came from my mother’s pension pay out,” I began, as Buddy, Esther and I sat with coffee and cake at their kitchen table.  “How would you feel if this happened to your children?”

“We don’t know where that money came from,” said Esther.  “Your father wanted us to have it.  That’s all there is to it.”

“I spent more than $3,000 on the funeral,” I countered, “and I’ve been stuck in New York, not working for weeks, while I straightened everything out.”

“When your father was sick, I rubbed Bengay on his back,” Esther revealed in what could have been a tactical mistake.  Retreating quickly from any implication that she led him on, she added, “I don’t need to tell you all we did for him.  I cooked his meals and washed his clothes.”

Next, I pushed the envelope a bit:  “I don’t really understand why my father left you so much to begin with.”

“He wanted Es to have it,” Buddy shot back.  “You don’t know how much she meant to him.”

“That’s just the point,” I said, knowing that this hint that Irv and Esther were involved in some way would keep us talking.  “It was a funny situation.”

That remark seemed to turn the corner.  “Look Buddy, I’ll handle this,” Esther said, pointing at her husband, “so don’t you open your mouth.”  Then, looking at me: “Al right, Louis, let’s split it in half,” she offered.  “We’ll go to the bank and see what’s what.”

Everything was settled and now Esther would make dinner.  “I’ll cook the roast beef,” she said to me, “just the way you like it.”

At the stairs, I kissed her goodbye and shook Buddy’s hand.  “We’re still good friends,” Buddy said.

“That’s important to me,” I said and meant it.

I now had enough money to travel and move to California.  But I was mad at my father for entangling me with his friends and for disrespecting my mother. Apparently, Irv had been obsessed with Esther for 50 years (in his wallet I found a very provocative photo of her at a mirror with her legs crossed).

Only to his mother did Irv show similar devotion.  He was the middle son and always insecure about how she regarded him.  My father would become furious if anybody even mildly criticized her.

Sally, he took for granted.  He almost never treated her to a movie or a restaurant and on his days off he would either sleep or go visiting (to twenty third avenue).  When Sally was very ill, he carried on as a dutiful husband.  Weeks before she died, the strain on him was apparent but he didn’t break down.  “I won’t cry on anyone’s shoulder,” he told me, his eyes bloodshot.  “If I want to cry, I’ll cry alone.”

Five years later and two weeks before he died, I saw him in New York.  I was on my way back to Vermont.  He had a terrible flu and looked very frail.  “Your father’s getting old,” he said to me.  “But in general I can’t complain.”

I wrote a version of this story 30 years ago when the details were fresh in my mind.  The dialogue is obviously compressed and approximate but I tried to recreate how we sounded talking to each other.  I’ll admit to a few slight exaggerations but this account is mostly true and there’s no-one left but me to fact-check.

 

EARTHQUAKES IN L.A.

My second marriage ended when I was 45 in 1996 but this time I had kids.

The relationship started to crack two years earlier when the family was dislocated (like a broken bone) from our “neo-Mediterranean-style” upstairs rental in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of West L.A.

No-one I knew was hurt in the Northridge Earthquake, but four buildings on the 1600 block of Sherbourne Drive were badly damaged.  Just west of La Cienega (the swamp) and a mile north of the site of the Santa Monica Freeway bridge collapse, all that mushy stuff below the ground made Sherbourne a particularly vulnerable spot.

A few weeks later the house we lived in would be “red-tagged” – rendered uninhabitable – by a FEMA inspector but we didn’t wait to evacuate.  We were out of our apartment within 72 hours of the January 17, ’94 “e.q.” (the ninth anniversary, by the way, of the M.L.K. federal holiday).  Two movers helped throw our stuff into cardboard boxes which we carried down the stairs while hoping that the aftershocks wouldn’t worsen the gap between the wall and the living room floor or collapse the building altogether.  No time to organize and label, each box was an amalgamation: a frying pan, a pair of sneakers, six paperback books, two pillows, venetian blinds and an alarm clock.

My kids were three and six months old and we needed shelter.  Their mom and I found a temporary and expensive place in upscale Beverlywood, a charming and exclusive neighborhood with curvy, hilly, tree-lined streets and homes with back window views of Century City and downtown. The $2700 FEMA check we received in the mail a few weeks later covered a small part of our move.

Though we survived the “medium one,” the episode and its aftermath exposed fissures in the marriage which would eventually tear the family apart.

By then, I’d been in L.A. for 15 years and had come to terms with life in Southern California.  What kept me here at first – besides the weather, of course – were work opportunities and a sense of possibility.  There was a lot to do and hope for.

I got off to a quick start in the early ‘80s as a freelance writer, selling stories to local papers and a few national magazines, including a couple of pieces to the now defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner about the progressive “takeover” of  Santa Monica city government by radical renters rights advocates (groomed by Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda). I nailed an exclusive Q & A for the short-lived Inside Sports with the first Soviet hockey player in the NHL: the now completely-forgotten Victor Nachaev.  I got the lead for that “scoop” from contacts made writing an L.A. Weekly cover story on Soviet émigrés in Los Angeles, which followed my firstWeekly piece: a profile of Jewish Defense League director Irv Rubin. Twenty years later, Rubin would kill himself while in custody in the downtown L.A. detentions center for allegedly plotting to blow up the Culver City Mosque.

My early writing career in Los Angeles was supplemented by various sales jobs.

Working in a “Boiler Room” on Washington Blvd. – starting weekdays at 6:00 a.m. – about twenty of us would cold-call east-coast law firms, accounting offices and realty companies to lure secretaries into ordering copier supplies. The trick was to make them believe that we were the “authorized” supplier which, of course, we weren’t.

Watching over us from across the room and monitoring our conversations was the head salesman: an extreme extravert with great instincts.  Getting your attention at just the right moment he would point to you and recite the most important line in our script: “Spell Your Last Name.” That was the signal to stop pitching and start closing.  Filling out the details of the shipping form – which begins by getting her (it was usually a her) to turn over all pertinent information – was how this operation stayed in business and how we earned our commissions.

The pressure to make money drove my career in new directions and – in an odd way – connected me to the Reagan era.  Though I opposed the administration and its policies,  I was living out the 1980s creed that you’re on your own.

After all, I had just left a promising career as an “advocacy journalist” – and my first wife – in cozy, comfortable and communitarian Vermont.   The fact that both my parents had died in New York before I was 30 made it easier for me to get away.  Un-tethered from the northeast (I called myself a “divorced orphan”), I was leaving behind my neighborhood in Brooklyn and – more reluctantly – the rural New England progressive cultural ghetto.

Why not enjoy my anonymity for a while and take advantage of the individualistic – hedonistic – life-style and apolitical opportunities of Southern California?  I wasn’t about to throw my world view overboard but I wanted to test the market to see what my “skill-set” could bring.

I found a niche in public relations.

I was hired as an account exec by a mid-sized Wilshire Blvd. agency and – among other assignments – would promote the launch of an L.A.- based national financial newspaper, an alternative (so we said) to the venerable Wall Street Journal.

Investor’s Daily (later known as Investor’s Business Daily) offered readers advanced financial data (circa 1984) and the right-of-center views of its publisher William O’Neil, a quirky investment wizard who made a fortune as a broker and pioneer in financial-data-tracking computer technology.

I enjoyed publicity work and generated substantial media for opening day of the new pub.  I booked interviews for O’Neil on Today and other news shows and wasn’t particularly troubled by the notion that I was serving the “financial elite.”

But after a few year of project work for a variety of agencies – promoting a master-planned residential community in Simi Valley, showcasing corporate sponsors in a tribute to the Crenshaw High basketball team, preparing investor-relations materials for a stock offering by a small defense contractor – I began to suffer a crisis of political values.

Was I turning into a “sell-out”?

Working with unions – starting in 1986 – would solve that problem.  I gladly took the oath of loyalty to the American Labor Movement; more able to tolerate contradictions within organized labor than if I had put in with a more elite progressive institutional movement.

I was quick to internalize the mission, the values and the language of unions; able to circle back to my “Inner-Bensonhurst:” the workers coming down the Bay Parkway train station steps after a long day pushing racks through the fashion district, unloading crates in the Fulton Fish Market, answering phones in midtown ad agencies. I didn’t have an idealized or romanticized notions about wage-earners, I just knew they needed a break.

Certainly, union activists must sustain a vision of a better – a more equitable and just – society.  But working for unions requires solving concrete problems.  My entry point was in improving union “communications:” writing, editing and producing newsletters and developing materials for internal and external campaigns.  As it turned out, my journalism and public relations skills were also a good fit for Labor’s corporate campaign era as unions looked for alternatives to the strike to enhance bargaining leverage.

One of my earliest projects was to force the City of Hope, a big-name Southern California cancer hospital, to back off from its anti-union posture with its clerical workers.

I hammered management for betraying its legacy as a tuberculosis treatment center founded by garment unions in the early 1900s.  Ads in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal targeted hospital director Sandy Shapero, a very dubious character who would leave City of Hope later in the decade under disagreeable circumstances (investigated by the FBI in 1998 for extortion).  Our campaign disclosed, among other things, that Shapero was trying to pass himself off as a medical doctor when, in fact, he was a discredited rabbi with a doctorate in “divinity.”

It took a while, but management came back to the table.  This earned me some cache at the time with the central labor council, partly because the settlement removed the once union-friendly City of Hope from the AFL-CIO boycott list, which was causing headaches on both sides.

I felt useful and included.  For many years I didn’t think I belonged in this region.  Isolated and alienated, I missed Vermont’s community-based camaraderie and ever-expanding social circles; where – all day long – in Brattleboro (the southeast corner of the state) or Montpelier (central Vermont), I would run into friends and colleagues on the street, in stores and in restaurants.  Vast and sprawling L.A. would even make me yearn for the banter and bustle of the compressed neighborhoods of  New York City.

Not any more.  It was now clear that the Los Angeles Labor Movement would satisfy my need for meaning, recognition and affinity; and eventually – with unions as my psychological anchor – make progressive L.A. an “idealized object.”

As for other – more intimate – needs, Southern California may have been a good venue for experiment and exploration (use your imagination) but five years without a  meaningful relationship made me lonely and depressed.

Debbie and I met in late ’84 and become “serious” right away.  We were a good match. In fact, she was great support as I prospected for – and began getting – union work.  Culturally and politically radical, non-materialistic, nice-looking and my age, she fit the bill in another important way: a psychologist a few years from completing her doctorate, she reflected the “inner world” side of my character.

Striving to expand my institutional role, I now had a partner who would hone in on my internal struggle.  As a client and student, I already had quite a bit of exposure in the psychology field.  Many friends – and my sister – were therapists.  My connection to that professional community would expand through my new relationship.

I had both tracks covered.

Unions would give me a sense of purpose and a living.

Psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, couples counselors, group therapists, Freudians, Jungians and Kleinians would give me a shot at mental health and happiness.

For the past 25 years I’ve been living in and thinking about these different realms.  The borders are ambiguous and elastic.  Many labor / political activists have formidable personal and inter-personal insight and many psychologically-minded people can be very politically astute.

I would conclude, though, that union organizers and leaders tend to be concrete in thought and action; temperamentally inclined to assess conditions, devise a strategy and carry it out with focused determination.

Psychologically-oriented adults, on the other hand, concentrate on internals: unconscious motivation, the “struggle” to connect with others, the individual’s existential pain.

My political friends tend to miss how hubris and hunger for power is driven by low self-esteem.  My psychology friends tend to lose interest in the details of class-based economic warfare.

That aside, my life as husband (‘87) and parent (’90, ’93), was joyous but troubling.  Fatherhood suited me.  I, of course, fashioned myself a modern dad, capable of carrying out the most basic infant care functions (including bottle-feeding “expressed” breast milk). But the daily stresses and frustrations of parenting (compounded as always by sleeplessness) were mounting.

Sometimes work would keep me away from home and I resented being blamed for not doing enough.  We hired help and went into debt.  Ashamed to admit that I couldn’t carry the load, I paid bills with credit cards, made interest-only payments and – like an addict – ordered more plastic.

It’s tragic when the pressures of a young family drive parents apart but that’s what happened.  I felt misunderstood, unappreciated and hurt.  The marriage was becoming grueling and I began to resort to type by checking out.

The quake accelerated the process.

Though we managed to find a comfortable house to rent – and then buy – in Mar Vista, west of Sawtelle, north of Venice, the two forced relocations (we were evicted from Beverlywood when that house sold four months after we moved in), the swelling debt, our growing emotional isolation, the pressure of caring for two pre-schoolers deepened the cracks in our marriage.

These fault lines in our relationship caused fissures that widened over time.  Was I to blame? I had been involved in crumbling relationships before, but not with kids in the mix.  What would happen if we couldn’t hold on?

Two and a half years after “Northridge” it was over.  I was moving out and moving on.

Determined to make a go of it as a divorced dad.

 

THE LAST STOP IN BROOKLYN

Getting out was essential but I was stuck in Brooklyn until I could plot my escape…

There was no such thing as “diversity” in white, working-class Bensonhurst in the 1950s. Only the Jews and the Italians.

My tribe descending from Yiddish-speaking East European immigrants who settled in cramped tenements and worked in the schmatta trade of Manhattan’s lower east side.

Moving – after the war – across the East River to apartments with bedrooms and bathrooms; a 50 minute commute to “the city” on the west end line of the BMT. Sharing the neighborhood with Southern Italian Catholics, a few Irish and fewer blacks and Puerto Ricans who worked for – but rarely lived among – us white “ethnics.”

My father drove a cab six days a week and my mother typed for a living. We weren’t poor but sometimes for dinner my mother would serve macaroni with ketchup. Sally and Irv enjoyed themselves occasionally – they played penny poker with friends on Saturday night, she watched Liberace, he watched the Yankees, and now and then they would go out for “Chinese.”

But much of the time they were frustrated and miserable. Irv was known to friends and cousins as “easy going” and – though he didn’t drink – could “snap” and do a lot of damage. Sally was always worrying and felt ashamed of her divorce in the 1940s. Her daughter, my “half” sister, twelve years older, lived with us and hated my father (for good reason).

I was acting out at home – yelling, cursing and defiant – and in junior and senior high: cutting classes and on my way to becoming an official “truant” and dropout.   In the grip of adolescent anguish, by 14 I would ruminate incessantly about girls, particularly the local Italians, whose appeal was intensified by a taboo that would prevail into the 1970s and beyond.

Even my pre-pubescent preferences leaned in that direction, stimulated by those lusty Italian ladies of Bensonhurst. Cleavaged, tight-skirted and toe-nail polished, they seemed more overtly libidinal than the Jewish women in the neighborhood. My fascination was a distraction from family problems and a way to imagine my escape.  I enjoyed other diversions, as well: scooting around the corner to play punchball or pedaling my bike to the Cropsey Avenue Park or buying an egg cream – for twelve cents – on Bay Parkway and 86thStreet.

Rivalries erupted from time to time between the Jewish and Italian boys. I was involved in some of these courtyard fist fights. Though the violence was minimal (no weapons: just a few punches in the face, a headlock and then a submissive “I give.”), these neighborhood battles would not only contest virility but would reveal an ethnic-based class resentment.

While many of my Italian peers became very successful academically, professionally and financially, it was the Jewish kids who were most eager to leave the old neighborhood (this is decades before the borough became trendy for Gen X bohemians). This ethic of upward and outward mobility, built into Jewish cultural DNA, has fashioned a Jewish-American Diaspora – from Hester Street to the “outer boroughs” to the upper west side, Hempstead Long Island, Southern California and points in between.

For a time, I resisted the traditionally available route for a smart Jewish kid to get ahead.  Depressed and anxious, I was flunking out of school.  Developing instead the style of free spirit, a malcontent and a wanderer; a persona which required that I reject my parent’s values with a simplistic, snotty and condescending critique of them as vacuous and conventional.

This fit right in with “generation gap” rhetoric and prevailing notions of liberation pulsing through the counter culture in 1967.  I could distance myself from my painful past and pathetic parents, disparage their “material values” – appalled, for example, by their choice to cover their sofa with clear, thick, sticky plastic – and fashion myself as superior.

It would take awhile before I would better understand how my parent’s lives shaped my political values. By my late teens I saw as merely incidental the fact that they had joined the ranks of  New York’s unionized civil service. My father was forced out of taxi driving by his health, becoming a clerical for the state insurance fund; my mother putting her fast fingers to work for the city’s board of education.

But a lonely 17-year-old had no time for such reflections.  On nights when I had trouble sleeping, I would slink out of my parent’s apartment to wander the streets. There was always the faint hope of an exotic sexual encounter, but most of these three-in-the-morning outings were a time for thoughtful solitude.

Walking past the Coney Island Terminal – the last stop for Brooklyn-bound trains from Manhattan – just a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean and the famous Boardwalk, Aquarium, Cyclone and Nathan’s, I was ruminating over my academic circumstances.

In a few hours, I would be starting a new high school. (My parents and I had, in fact, deserted Bensonhurst – but only barely – relocating a few neighborhoods south to Brighton Beach which, ten years later, would take in thousands of Soviet émigrés and gain national fame as “Odessa by the Sea.”)

I stayed up all night, walked along Surf Avenue as far as “Seagate,” (one of America’s oldest gated communities on the western edge of Coney Island) and – somewhere along the way – decided to stop screwing around in school.

I could tell this was a big deal.  Later in life when I started to chart these pivotal events, I would mark my Surf Avenue expedition as the first of many.

That semester in Lincoln High I stuck to my resolve, dropping bookkeeping and merchandising, flipping back to a college prep curriculum, re-taking failed classes – geometry, biology – and planning an extra year in high school.

Though I would finish Lincoln with a weak overall record, my academic performance improved substantially the final two years – enough to let me shop around for a college which would recognize my potential.

The last stop on my exit from Brooklyn would be the NYU psychology clinic for nine months of analytic psychotherapy with a grad student who would later become a successful New York analyst. Nowadays, concerned and proactive parents who detect problems in their kids are quick to refer them to psychologists for therapy and psychiatrists for medication. But this was my initiative and I jumped at the chance to see a “shrink.” Twice a week I rode the subway into lower Manhattan and – for 50 cents a session – began what would be decades of various forms of psychotherapy (including a brief period in which I aspired to be a therapist myself).

Coincidentally – and ironically (given my ultimate career choice) – in 1970, the NYU psychology clinic building was located at 23-29 Washington Place which, 60 years earlier (then known as the Asch Building) was the site of the Triangle Shirt Waste Factory fire which killed 146 immigrant garment workers – mostly young Jewish women.

I didn’t find out until years later that the building held such enormous historical significance; that this epic tragedy – which triggered fire code and workplace safety reforms across the country – took place at the spot where I was preparing for my life as an adult.

Though oblivious to quite a bit happening around me (preoccupied with, among other things, overcoming my awkwardness with girls), I was however starting to absorb some of what was going on in the world.

I could recount stories here about my cultural and political “awakenings” – tying my personal development to iconic historical events: the M.L. King and Bobby Kennedy killings, Woodstock (I was there), the Democratic National Convention police riot (I wasn’t there) – but I’ll save for another time my detailed reflections on this period in American culture and politics. Hasn’t enough already been said about how sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll changed our lives?

Though I was linked to prevailing counter-culture sentiments – appropriately appalled by the War in Vietnam and other U.S. “atrocities” – my political views were confined (or should I say restrained) by a mainstream liberal tendency that I’ve maintained to this day.

Sure I was impressed by Ivy League SDSers taking over the dean’s office – I respected their dedication to social causes (and the fun they seemed to be having). But my own working-class resentments may have been surfacing in reaction to what was then perceived – not always correctly – as the “privileged” student protesters of American middle class families.

My working-class “liberal populism” reflected my parent’s political values pretty closely (though I couldn’t know this at the time).  One example would be my lack of resistance to Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential.  The “no difference” argument didn’t hold as I lined up happily with New Deal Labor Dems to try to beat Nixon.

I also took an intense interest in the reform movement in Eastern Europe against communist totalitarianism.  While I assume most American liberals and radicals at the time aligned with Czechoslovakians in their protest against Soviet tyranny, I felt a particular affinity for the young reformers.   My revulsion to Soviet Communism was sealed for life when Russian tanks and troops crushed Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring.

I don’t want to make too much of all this – I was just a kid – but I always felt a slight pull to the political center and couldn’t quite wrap my head around radical-chic notions about the Panthers, Mao or a range of utopian ideas espoused by elements of the new left. Though I might have looked like one, I was not a revolutionary.

Twenty years later, I would find a very nice fit within the American Labor Movement, navigating comfortably among the so-called old guard and the new generation of union militants.  I would develop a revisionist view of Sally and Irv, less critical of their values and more appreciative of how a few extra dollars in their pockets – thanks partly to the New York public sector unions – could make a big difference in workers’ lives.

I would also take on a more balanced – you could say compromised – view on the potential for personal transformation and social change.  Economic conditions do shape peoples lives, but individual choice enters the mix.  America – at its best – gives you a shot (at least it used to) and you make of it what you will.

As a Brooklyn, working-class, Jewish American – introspective and inclined toward progressive (but practical) politics – I feel lucky to have come as far as I have.

I’ve spent my life trying to overcome an agitated mother and angry father.  By 10, I was bratty and foul-mouthed; by 13, sexually-fixated and withdrawn; by 16, defiant and delinquent.  To compensate, I would develop very subtle behaviors to conceal my feelings of isolation.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  By the end of the 1960s, these formations were incubating.  In the 1970s I would work on my narrative: success on my own terms and an ongoing struggle for American justice and personal salvation.

I would also figure out that blaming parents or “society” for low self-esteem – even if it opens the door to self-acceptance – can only take you so far.

Next Installment: Earthquakes in L.A.

 

THE POLITICS OF EXPERIENCE

Years ago, I was considering psychology as a career but was diverted by self-doubt and political events.  Here’s a brief sketch of what happened during that period of my life…

At 25 I was brimming with psychological insight.  Or so I thought.

I had graduated from a small liberal arts college in rural Vermont with a senior year paid internship at the Brattleboro probation office supervising delinquent boys.  A year later I was enrolled in a masters program in counseling psychology at an Antioch College satellite campus across the Connecticut River in Keene, New Hampshire.

My background also included experience as a client in individual, couples and group therapy, having already undergone analytic treatments of various sorts.

Moreover, I was a believer in the wave of new practices and approaches sweeping the field in the 1970s and could, with some training, mold myself into a Rogerian, a Fritz Perlsian or even an R.D. Laingian.

Best of all, these therapies had a strong social change component.  We weren’t just treating neurosis, we were “raising consciousness.”

Though I had a knack for observation and interpretation, I held serious doubts about my own maturity and emotional stability.  Perhaps I was too anxious and depressed to improve other peoples’ lives.  I would need more time to tackle my own problems.  If  I was credentialed as a therapist in my 20s, I was afraid I’d suffer an acute case of “impostor syndrome.”

Later, I’d explain my decision to leave graduate school as a realization that the work ahead in psychology would be more “insular” than I could handle.  My conclusion now is that, despite my empathy, I had too many troubles of my own to help others in a clinical, one-to-one setting.

So in the summer of 1976, I made a pivotal career choice and political calculation.   I would take a leave from Antioch and slip into New York City – into midtown Manhattan- and volunteer to work on the advance team of the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign.

I was already quite political, having cut my teeth in the protest era as a pragmatic radical.

My reasoning was simple:

I would be of no use in Vermont – a state with just three electoral votes – which incumbent President Ford would win easily.  In fact, the now reliably blue state wouldn’t turn that way until 1992 (Ford won Vermont in 1976 by nine points).  But New York’s 41 electoral votes were up for grabs in this election and would prove to be pivotal in evicting the republicans from the white house.

My work for the democratic candidate was routine but stirred something in me that psychology couldn’t match.  I was assigned as designated driver to Carter’s Georgia staffers sent north to prepare for the governor’s Labor Day visit to the once-great union city.  Labor leaders were far from thrilled by this nominee.  In fact, declining union influence was already evident in the workplace and in politics.  Four years before, the AFL-CIO had refused to endorse the “dovish” George McGovern and now they were stuck with the moderate governor of a right-to-work state.

But the unions dutifully turned out, marched arm-in-arm with Carter in the traditional Labor Day parade, and then helped push the Georgia Governor over the finish line with a four percent win in New York in November.

I had been only a bit player in the presidential campaign, but felt like I truly belonged in this game.  Psychology, social work and the “helping professions” I could leave to others.  Back in Vermont after the election, I quit grad school and got a night-shift job as a “casual,” sorting mail at a local post office.  During the day, I would write articles for newsweeklies about community issues, culture and politics.

Tiny, beautiful and – above all – accessible,Vermont was a terrific place for a novice “alternative” journalist in the 1970s. The state’s tradition of tolerance and small town democracy attracted and assimilated an assortment of radical urban refugees (though almost all white) eager for life on a “human scale.”

By the late 70s I had found my “beat:” reporting from the capital of  Montpelier (population 8,000), covering the legislature, state government, business, culture and the early phase of what would become Vermont’s transformation as America’s Mecca of progressive politics.

But soon I would leave this idyllic state for Los Angeles – a passage many of my Vermont friends still find baffling more than 30 years later.

It was hard to abandon rural New England for the sprawl and anonymity of Southern California.  Vermonters really were – are – relatively unpretentious, resourceful, and egalitarian (a characterization that doesn’t quite fit the vast population of Los Angeles). Despite cold winters and humid summers, I was comfortable in the northeast.

But not enough to stay.

Below the surface in lonely and alienating L.A. was an intriguing mix of cultures, classes, neighborhoods and work.  As a journalist,  publicist and – eventually – a union “communicator,” I would integrate my working-class past with the region’s political movements.

And though I didn’t become a professional in psychology, I stayed active in that world, too.  Among my unfinished business, I still needed to iron out those kinks in my head.

Next Installment:

Jewish Working-Class Angst

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