December 8, 2013

Berkeley writers: Famous authors from my home town

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Jane Stillwater @ 3:47 pm

Way back in 1972, I found myself really struggling to find a place for myself in the new Nixon America, both philosophically and economically. The 1960s were clearly over and nobody wanted to hire me — either as a hippie single mother or as a female city planner with a masters degree from Cal. The days of Johnson’s Great Society and Urban Removal were gone completely and monies that used to go to improve our urban infrastructure had all been consumed in a fire called the Vietnam War. Plus planning departments throughout the land were mostly hiring only men “because they had families to support”. Hey, me too!

And so I decided to go to a hypnotist who would then ask my subconscious mind for advice on the subject of, “What should I do with my life?” What am I good at? And the answer came back so definitively clear that it startled me.

“You are a WRITER,” screamed my subconscious. Go figure. Or maybe it had said, “Righter,” meaning a person who seeks justice and to put things to right. Or perhaps both.

And 40 years later, here I am — constantly writing my little heart out. So my subconscious mind was clearly on target. And I am also now living in a city that is famous for its writers (and Righters too): Berkeley, California. So I decided to go for a walk and check out the places where these famous writers had lived.

Alan Ginsberg lived at 1624 Milvia Street when he wrote “Howl”. And he also used to come over to visit my friends at the Woolsey Street House and hang out with Country Joe McDonald, Chogyam Trungpa and the Floating Lotus Magic Opera.

Jack Kerouac lived at 1943 Berkeley Way. Philip K. Dick lived at 1126 Francisco Street and worked at the Lucky Dog pet shop  The list goes on and on. Ursula Le Guin, Robert Penn Warren, Joan Didion, Huey Newton, Anthony Boucher, June Jordan, Michael Chabon… All of them had homes in Berkeley.

But then I got to thinking about all the other residents — writers, Righters or not — currently living in Berkeley who do NOT have any homes. James, the writer who lives on the sidewalk in front of Jon’s ice cream shop, for instance. He has no home. And there are many, many, many others too — writers or not — who now live on our streets, unprotected and constantly at the mercy of weather, economic downturns, criminal minds and bad luck.

And these are only the homeless people in Berkeley that I’m talking about. All across America today there are thousands — probably even millions — of potential writers (and Righters) who are now (involuntarily) On The Road.

The strange and cancerous growth of homelessness in America since Jimmy Carter should surely give me something to write about. And should give you something to write about too. For instance, you could write to your congressional representative and tell him or her to stop spending our money on sleazy bank bailouts and stupid wars and start spending it on housing and schools instead. Who knows? Perhaps somewhere out there, homeless and afraid and without an education, is America’s next William Faulkner, Mark Twain or Janet Evanovich!

PS: Didn’t Mark Twain live in Berkeley too? Or at least visit here a lot? I know that he left his memoirs to the University of California.

PPS: Here is an article I wrote back in 2007 after my visit to Nelson Mandela’s home town, Soweto, back when I was in the Peace Corps in South Africa. “Up the ‘Bucs!”

And another article I wrote about Mandela’s relationship to Lucas Mangope, uncrowned king of the Setswana, who lived in my South African home town.

April 18, 2013

Living & dying on the streets: Being homeless is HARD WORK!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Jane Stillwater @ 12:36 pm

While my apartment was busy being renovated, re-habbed and fixed up for most of last month and a good chunk of this one, I had been forced to find “alternative housing” — staying with relatives, living in cheap motels, house-sitting for strangers, sleeping on various couches and futons, renting rooms-by-the-night in other peoples’ homes, staying in hostels, whatever. But yesterday I finally got to move back home!

Sure, all my stuff was still in boxes when I got back and the heater didn’t work and there was no hot water, but it’s like Virginia Woolf used to say, “All one really needs is a bed and a computer of one’s own.”

Everything else is just icing on the cake.

This past month has been a grand adventure, obviously, and a whole lot of fun in many ways. But the bottom line is that, for most of this time, I was disoriented and grouchy and unsure and unorganized and even afraid. And for much of this time I was basically living out of the back seat of my car — and in laundromats and diners and parks and libraries. Even now, my head hurts just thinking about it.

And even though I myself was never in any real danger of being actually homeless during this time and didn’t have to go without any meals and always found a roof to put over my head, nevertheless, I was constantly stressed out during this entire month. Mucho stressed out. Stressed out a lot!

So just imagine if someone was forced to do this uber-stressful homelessness gig 24/7; for months and even years at a time — with no resources, no backup and no future hope that someday soon they would be going back home again. I can’t even imagine doing all that and still keeping sane.

In just the past month, my complete respect for the homeless has grown by leaps and bounds. It’s a wonder to me that they can handle all this stress day after day and still remain sane. It’s even a wonder to me that they can even still stay alive.

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, “[T]he number of homeless people on a single night in January 2012 was 633,782.” And I bet there were a lot more than that.

Here’s to you, homeless Americans everywhere. Having been almost one of you for only one month, I salute you with all of my heart.

PS: My all-time favorite bumper sticker reads, “Imagine a world where EVERY child is wanted, nurtured, protected and loved: World Peace in one generation!” And I sincerely believed this was true until I met a young woman from China recently — and now have to re-think that idea completely.

“What are they like — those adults in China who have grown up under its single-child system, the fortunately-nurtured ones whose needs have all been met? Are they happy, secure, hopeful, compassionate?”

“No, hardly! They’re egocentric, self-centered and spoiled. They think only of themselves and their own wants and needs. Having been raised without siblings and with so many doting parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all they can pretty much do now as adults is to whine a lot when they don’t get their own way — and expect to be waited on.”

And this same sort of thing seems to be true here at my housing co-op as well. When we all moved in here back in 1979, a lot of us had some pretty grim stories to tell — having endured poverty, homelessness, spousal abuse, single-parent loneliness, unemployment, overcrowding, victimization, addiction, etc; before finding these wonderful homes. I myself had previously been living in an attic without running water and then in a small apartment with no privacy.

And then our sweet little housing co-op offered all of us bruised members of society an idealistic new chance to be wanted, nurtured, protected and loved. My co-op’s motto became “Caring and Sharing”.

And so what happened next? How did these new residents handle this wonderful new chance? Humph. Instead of creating “neighborhood peace in one generation” like we had hoped, they soon became a re-creation of the worst of today’s modern American society, almost exactly. We soon developed an almost Darwinian example of survival of the fittest.

Within ten years, my sweet little housing co-op had already developed its very own Boss Tweeds and its very own 1%.

However, something good did come of all this. Timid little me actually began to develop the necessary cajones to go up against this new 1% all by myself. And even after surviving attempts to beat me up, illegally raise my rent, stage frequent sudden illegal “inspections” of my apartment, actually try to pass an ordinance that I was not allowed to knit in board meetings, hold five (5) kangaroo courts to try to convict me of wrong-doing, attempt to evict me illegally and even to throw me in jail, I did finally win the battle to get my housing co-op not only financially stable for the first time in years but actually renovated and restored to its original pristine condition.

And then, even more important, when George W. Bush stole the 2000 election, I realized that if I could single-handedly defeat the greedy Boss Tweeds who ran my housing co-op, then taking on GWB should be a walk in the park! And that’s how I became a blogger. So, actually, I do owe those former powers-that-be in my co-op a huge debt of gratitude after all.

They proved to me that if someone, even the weakest and meekest of us all, can work long enough and hard enough to achieve justice, then it can be obtained.

And so Wall Street and War Street had better watch out! I am still coming after them. And I’m now locked and loaded — with a computer and a bed!

PPS: A well-known local psychiatrist recently gave a speech to members of the Berkeley-Albany Bar Association, and he said that children raised in child-centered households were far LESS likely to become substance abusers than children raised in adult-centered households.

This probably means that the egotistic children of China at least won’t be at risk for getting all addicted to alcohol and drugs — plus it certainly explains why GWB was a drunk and coke addict for so many years.

March 10, 2013

No fun at all: Homeless in Berkeley and poor in Jakarta

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Jane Stillwater @ 4:57 pm

My friend Gordon Lau works for a charitable foundation in Jakarta that tries to help the poorest of the poor — and so he decided to see exactly what his clients are going through by being “Poor for a Day” himself

I wanna be poor for a day too — and have just been given the perfect opportunity to do so. My housing co-op is being re-habbed and I have to be out of my apartment for three weeks while they do everything to it except install a new chimney for Santa Claus to come down.

Fifteen years ago, I started fighting like a tiger to get my co-op re-habbed because it was falling apart — but its board of directors kept balking or even actively fighting the idea, getting so sick of me that they even threatened poor sweet me with eviction and jail if I didn’t shut up.

However, some broad members finally had a change of heart and others retired, and we actually finally started getting re-hab plans made — but even then it took us an additional five years to get the re-hab finally under way.

And now that it’s here and actually happening? I think I’ve created a monster!

Almost everything on the property must go, from shingles to roofing to flooring to kitchen sinks. The whole place has been in complete chaos for months.

Around forty units have been re-habbed already — and now it’s my turn to put up or shut up as my own unit goes through a complete wash-rise-and-dry cycle. But although the co-op is giving me a per diem to stay somewhere else for three weeks, if I can somehow scrounge by for less than the per diem, I’ll have extra money for food and/or for getting a root canal (you gotta be a member of Congress or live on Wall Street to receive federally-funded dental care these days — so most of the rest of us are either going to have to work three jobs, win the lottery or go toothless. But I digress).

So in the interest of not going hungry and good dental hygiene, I decided to follow Gordon Lau’s Jakarta example and go “Poor for a Day” too.

Let’s see. First I can follow a rising trend here in Berkeley and camp out on the front steps of that abandoned building next door. That won’t cost me anything. However, the current policy there seems to be, “Bring your own mattress”.

Now where can I get a good meal for less than a dollar? St. Paul’s AME church does a free lunch on Tuesdays. I’m in.

The rest of the day I can spend at the public library, using its computer and reading murder mysteries in the back room. Then what about dinner? You know that Chez Panisse caught on fire recently? Maybe they would be having a fire sale? I could always swing by and see.

And then there is always dumpster-diving. Oh, and the Sweet Adeline bakery might have some leftover chocolate cream pie at the end of the day? Wistful thinking. There’s never gonna be any left over. That stuff sells fast!

The South Berkeley farmers market is held on Tuesdays too. I could see what they have for cheap at the end of the day. Or up on Telegraph, at People’s Park, don’t they still have a soup kitchen at night? Or the Berkeley Bowl is having a big sale on Brown Cow yogurt. I could do that.

Then back to the abandoned building for the night — or perhaps I could get a more scenic view by sheltering in place up in Tilden Park? And still have fifty cents left in my pocket at the end of the day. I could do this. Once. But every single day? No, no, no and no! I truly don’t see how genuinely homeless people can do it.

“But what if it rains, Jane?” you might ask. “Or what if you get mugged, raped or killed?” Oh well. Just one less poor person and one less senior citizen on Social Security for the RepubliDems to look down their noses at and/or rob. No wonder Congress is helping seniors die off so fast — less Social Security to pay out, so more money for Wall Street and War Street!

What makes us human? Capitalists say that it is our ability to produce profit — at any cost. However, Jesus, the Buddha and Mohammed all agree that it is only compassion for others who are weaker than us that gives us our humanity and raises us up above the rest of the beasts.

Still and all, I will be really really really glad when I can move back into my apartment again. And if you live in the Berkeley area and need me to house-sit between now and the end of March, please let me know. I’ll even try to walk your dog. Er, maybe not. Or there’s always And my wonderful son Joe’s futon in his apartment in La Mission.

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