Issue #24, February 1998

Another opening, another show...

It's after 8 p.m. of a dry but cold Saturday in January that I've spent in a skyscraper downtown lawyer's office, going through documents - big boxes of them - in preparation for a lawsuit against the Seattle Housing Authority. I'm in a taxicab, at this moment, just coming off the freeway as we head toward home, and at the foot of the exit is a big blond fellow, not very shabby and reasonably robust, with a sign asking for work. Eight p.m. on a cold January night.

"Aw, hell," says the cabbie. "Don't tell me a guy like that can't get hisself a job!"

Not wanting to leave it lay, as if I necessarily agree, I reply to him, "Well, I don't know . . . but it can't be very profitable standing out there on a night like this. Maybe he doesn't even have a place to live."

And the cabbie reconsiders. Just a small edge of compassion in his response, but he is at least not confirmed in turning his back on someone in need, and maybe the better for it.

You may wonder what I'm doing in a taxicab. After eight hours in that lawyer's office, at the end of a hard-driving week that saw me twice down in Olympia before legislative committees and once in our new mayor's office, pleading the case against the Housing Authority, I was taking advantage of funds available for a taxi ride. I was up at 4 a.m., on one of those mornings, in order to get to Olympia on time.

This has been the tale of my January - a year's opener every bit as demanding of me as the previous several. It looks like I've got to revise my estimate of what January is all about. Or maybe it has to do with closing toward the millennium, I don't know . . . a huge burst of energy to set off a year of jet-propelled developments. And this one looks clearly to be a housing year, though I thought I'd left that field of action behind.

But as I sit here, the next morning, reading a newspaper account of the housing situation here, I realize it is not just my own struggle, but one of the most serious national problems of our time, and hitting Seattle with at least as much impact as anywhere. It seems that urban residency is simply being priced out of affordability. Not just for those on the shy side of finances, like myself, but for everyone. Rental prices are now leaping 20 percent and more, from figures that were already up there in the $450-500 range for a mere studio apartment!

It is strange, in fact, to be fighting the Housing Authority, when the beneficence of this incredibly low-cost one-bedroom unit I occupy ($154 per month, based on a percentage of my income) now looks like the only possible way that I can maintain a Seattle city residence, which has a particularly high value for me. For the moment, my situation is stable, but evictions are underway elsewhere in the city, as H.U.D. contracts for tenancy expire and entire apartment buildings are being converted to market-rate rental. In the midst of this, the city's homeless situation continues to worsen. Look at the stats, comparing last year with the one before:



Families refused emergency shelter, for lack of space



On a given October night, number found sleeping on the street



On a given October night, number of shelter clients under age 17



On a given October night, number of shelter clients under age 12



On a given October night, number of shelter clients over age 55



On a given October night, number of shelter clients single women



Don't comfort yourself, next time you see someone on a streetcorner with a sign, with any easy reaction that it's probably a scam . . . it probably isn't. There are too many people, these days, in your city as well as mine, who are really up against it.

But back to this battle with the Housing Authority - it is presently happening on two fronts. A coalition has taken shape in the past half year between labor and tenant organizations, along with housing displacement activists, to force the agency into a more responsive accountability, mainly by means of changing the composition of its board of commissioners. This has to be done at the legislative level, as it operates under state law. Hence, the trips to Olympia and the effort to gain support from the city's own governing bodies.

But the legislative process makes about as much sense as an old Marx Brothers routine. The committee gathers, impressively arrayed in the public hearing room, to receive the Voice of the People - or maybe it doesn't . . . only one member of the Senate committee was there to listen, when our testimony got underway. And maybe we don't even get to speak, as was the case when I was abruptly informed that since no opposition had shown up, there was no need for all of us in favor of the bill to take up their morning's valuable time . . . on the day that I got up at 4 a.m. to voice my concerns.

All in all, it's an unsettling process, a crazy-making game that contradicts much of what we're led to believe, about the value of public input to the process. Possibly an excellent index of why this country is in such a tangled mess.

But the more pertinent struggle is the more direct one that began about two years ago, to do something that will change the present course of this particular senior housing program, which is headed toward bankruptcy in five years. We are suing the Housing Authority for $6.5 million - money that was diverted toward other purposes than originally intended by the electorate that voted the bond issue for it. This is, at any rate, what we are out to prove, and we will have our day in court, to do so.

While I'm not personally involved as a plaintiff, I seem to have the best grasp of the factual material that underlies the challenge, from my earlier work with it, and so I cannot escape a central involvement. Life seems to have ordained this role for me. The case will not be heard for another full year, but there is a lot of work to be done on it meanwhile, in further investigation and development of the evidence.

It is a strange, and not entirely welcome fate. I did actually burn out on the fight at the end of 1996 and quietly backed away from it. But a tenants organization had come together, by then, and they managed to interest a genuinely concerned lawyer who was, in turn, able to link up with a prominent litigation firm that took it up as a pro bono lawsuit - not only on a contingent basis, but free of any charges to us, whatsoever.

Not just 'any old law firm,' either - this is a Big League outfit with some fifteen attorneys on their staff, and a substantial track record. And one of the principals will share in the prosecution of our case, so we stand a better than fair chance at the bar of justice. A win could prolong the life of the program another fifteen years, at the very least, and possibly put in motion the managerial changes that could really put it on a self-sustaining basis, as was the program's original intent.

But does it have to be my particular task for the year, to devote my diminishing time to the grinding wheels of justice and politics? The year, at the moment, does not feel so promising to me. I've other things on my personal agenda, and am tired of seeing them constantly brushed aside for things of presumably 'greater moment,' in some larger scheme of things.

I'm thinking of the web, for instance. No, not surfing it, which is a pastime that only grabs the first-year impressionables - and I admit I was one such, not so long ago - or those with not much a life of their own, who in the webless world were called 'couch potatoes.' But the web as a personal publishing outlet is something else again. And the web as an avenue into the immortal future, something of even more exceptional notice.

My web site has been up for two years now, but the amount of material I've been able to add to it in the past year is almost negligible. True, the most satisfying piece of writing I've done - the book, Innocence Abroad - is all in place, except for the illustrations. But so much more awaits. Things you know about, like all of these Ripening Seasons, and some of the choice material from the old Black Bart series, and then things you may have no awareness of at all.

There was another whole book, you know, written long ago . . . an episodic tale of those first few years of the Black Bart experience, when so many fresh and exciting realizations were coming into my world. Joy and I got into it, not so long ago, and it still feels like excellent reading, to me - filled with the exuberance of first discovery, and some of the pain of loss and the trials of challenge that I had to get through, in order to find my new life. The only way it will ever "see publication" is to get it out there on the web.

Similarly, I found the very oldest of my journals, done before I ever embarked on the Black Bart trail, but I was already moving toward that headspace, getting radicalized in Seattle in the winter of 1969. I was still a computer programmer in those days, but into my midlife crisis years, and raging at the world I felt trapped in. It is the journal of a life contemplating radical change, but unsure of how and when to go about it, and whether I could really manage it.

At one level, it seems a bit absurd, even deranged, to want to devote the last few precious years of a waning but still active life, making patterns of micro-bits in some invisible corner of cyberspace, with so little seeming relevance to the real world . . . even for my own part, I prefer real books, real printed material, to anything I can get on a screen in a box. Give me a library, any day, to a stack of CD-ROMs. But getting any exposure for that material that now sits buried in my file drawer, and a lot more besides, goes nowhere without the web. Even what I've already published - where is it now to be found? Only a researcher is ever likely to uncover any of it.

I know, you're saying, "Who's going to find it in cyberspace (which is nothing more than a 'virtual' place), anyway?" Well, I'm already beginning to discover the answer to that, in email received, every so often, from complete strangers - like this one that came in a few weeks ago, from Tennessee:

It's about three o'clock in the morning, Eastern time, as I write this note to you. I was doing a leisurely evening of web surfing, when I stumbled across your web site. I landed in the middle of chapter 6 of [Innocence Abroad]. I have sat here for the last six hours, I think, and read the entire story...

Or this one, from Canada:

I've been traveling through Europe with you for the past few weeks and I'm enjoying the adventure so much that I've been keeping my family, friends and neighbours up on your journey. Now everyone is asking me, "What is Irv doing now?" If this keeps up, you will have a large cult following in Ontario...

In the two years of the site's availability, it has only garnered a thousand hits, a hundred of which, I'm sure, were registered by me. But it gained a solid hundred on a single day, last month, when it received a review in the electronic edition of the New York Times, which also carried my portrait along with it. In other words, there is no such thing as "out-of-print" on the web, or "remaindered stock" being sold at a discount. The web world of publishing can be fresh everyday, not part of our world of built-in obsolescence, which applies now to books as well as automobiles.

But the most useful aspect of it is yet to come. The New York Times writer, Ashley Dunn, was not reviewing my site alone - it was part of a larger topic, about a web site called, started by a friend of mine, David Blatner.

It is one of those continual blessings of Providence in my life, that I know David at all. He's one of my youngest friends, from a completely unrelated side of my life (almost ten years ago, we both attended a "feminist men's conference"), but happens to be very well established in the cyber community. I asked him, early last year, if he'd be willing to see that my web site stays around for awhile, after I finally depart this vale of temporal labors and joys. He was not only agreeable to it, but got to thinking, afterward, about the nature of the problem, and all the other personal web sites out there, due to expire right along with their creators when the time should come.

So David has set out to do something about it, and is the result. I have played a small part, it seems, in the founding of something of possibly great significance, gaining in the process, for myself, a small edge on the ledge of eternity. My work may be around for awhile . . . maybe even a few centuries.

Which brings up the ultimate question . . . Who Cares? Or who is going to care? so as to eliminate the most obvious answer (myself).

Well, I think a lot of people may oneday care about what a period of major social transition can do to individual lives caught in the tumultuous flow of it. As Ashley Dunn explained the point, the historical picture will no longer be nearly obliterated by an outsized image of its major events and the personalities around them. Hitler and Einstein may well remain the most prominent notables of our time (just as it was Caesar and Socrates, of theirs). But for the first time, in all of history, the tales of everyday experience will be just as accessible, and allowed their proper weight in the balance.

If our little lives count for anything at all, in the context of a world on its mad rush into the future, it is that we're the ones who had to cope with massive structural social change. We were the foot soldiers. We bore the brunt of it. And don't, for a minute, think it any less an heroic casting than those major media figures whose fortune and renown seem to set them apart as the very special of our age. You and I, too, were given a casting script when we came into this picture - a script that proved totally useless by the time we got halfway into it. We've been ad-libbing ever since, doing the artful dodge and fancy footwork with the best of them, managing to hold our upright balance. Don't sell it short!

Perhaps that statistic of 723 sleeping on Seattle's nightly streets, in a supposedly booming economy, in a supposedly compassionate society and enlightened culture, reveals the more truthful state of things and how tenuous is our actual stability. It is not a small number when you consider how routinely it is ignored by the rest of us. That we accept it so casually is a measure of the fear and hazard of the times we live in, and the necessary heroism of daily life. As if to say - "Never mind that guy sleeping on the city hall steps . . . look what I'm going through!"

Sure, we bury the fear and ignore the hazard, but they are with us all the same. I don't know what will happen, in my world, if I/we cannot rescue this housing program from its approaching demise . . . I live on a trust in Providence, grown from exactly the sort of tumultuous experience that the rupture of my life-script tossed me into. It is that rupture, and this very kind of risky adventure into new ways of being, that gives our lives heroic dimensions. These are the things I've been writing about, for the past thirty years.

But each of us has been living it in our own idiosyncratic way, every one of us. Start looking at the heroism of your own life, for it is there and should not be taken lightly. It provides meaning and purpose, a sense of real achievement in the midst of our chaos, where life may otherwise not seem to provide it. And when you look for it, don't just focus on the economic. That may be the very least of your heroism, though I used it to highlight the edge we live on. Just consider the threshold of verities and unquestioned moralities that formed the matrix of your early life, and think about what has become of them. We're not, by nature, creatures that thrive on instability, and yet this is exactly what the twentieth century, especially its latter third, has been all about.

One of the anomalies of our age, in fact, is that we've translated this basic drive for situational security into a ceaseless reach for more and more material security, so that economics has become the prime index of all things good and proper - as if we could regain a lost world of comparative stability if only we had enough money to somehow buy it back. It is an illusion that fools no one, yet this stops no one - or very few of us - from framing our lives around our earning power.

If my own life has any public meaning at all, it is that I abandoned that course when I first became aware of the illusion, and plunged headlong into the instability. The beauty of having those journals and reflections on it is that they constitute an early explorer's recognition of the anomaly, from a life completely embedded in it, and the subsequent trail outward from that mid-century reality of an America that no longer exists.

It seems safe to say that the social changes begun then are hardly underway - that we can't begin to imagine the structure as it will be, even half a century hence. No one fifty years ago, if you stop and think about it, could possibly have imagined the social structure as it is today. And if you are at all current in your reading on today's post-modern frontier, you'll know that just about every field of study, every realm of the supposedly known (at the time of our schooling as youngsters) has arrived at the edge of an abyss of recognition, that past certitudes are being - or have already been - shattered.

In other words, we're all in the maelstrom of dissolving structures, now, whether we opted for it or not. We tread water in a rising tide of uncertainties that engulfs every one of us, and we may never, in the course of our remaining lifetime, stand on solid ground again. Economics is certainly a part of all this, but it encompasses so much more, that we need hardly limit our self-respect to an economic measure. I repeat . . . we are all heroes, and it is time to acknowledge this to ourselves, for we need all the boost we can get, in this situation, for whatever is yet to come.

Happy Valentine's Day, my heroic friend . . . and may we share many more of them, in good spirits and hardihood, as the Millennium comes down.


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