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Homeless at the Piano 

Andy Pope, a musical prodigy with amazing creativity and passion for the performing arts has been a performer and composer since he was a child. A costly medical misdiagnosis led to a health crisis resulting in a decade of homelessness. He shares an account of his undeterred pursuit of that passion that created Eden in Babylon currently under development at the Regional Theater of the Palouse slated for production in summer 2023.

When I was homeless, I would wake up on a couple of pieces of cardboard, sometimes set over dirt. Sometimes I slept on a ramp on the side of a Catholic church. I would wake when the sky was getting light, then wander into a nearby AA fellowship. There I would hit the bathroom for a quick clean-up before grabbing a cup of coffee.

Make that three cups. The coffeemaker there was a homeless lady with 30+ years of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous. I remember her commenting how I would sit at the meeting and appear to be calmer and calmer, the more coffee I drank.

There was a none-too-pretty picture of the self-serving homeless person, who would come into the Berkeley Fellowship, grab a cup of coffee intended for an AA member, and then leave the premises. I did not want to conform to that picture.

So I sat for an hour, listened and occasionally spoke. I heard many wise sayings in that room, from people who had effectively found recovery from alcoholism and drug abuse. Inwardly, however, I knew I was mostly in it for the coffee.

There were also a few other ways for me to find a morning cup of coffee. Sometimes I would sleep in an illegal spot on campus near a Starbucks. I’d have saved a buck and change from the previous night, and then I would get to sit in the Starbucks with a newspaper—almost looking like a “normal” person.

The Men’s Shelter had excellent Peet’s coffee along with oatmeal, eggs, bread, peanut butter and all kinds of morning goodies. This was also an option. But my favorite coffee was the Kirkland Columbian they served at the North Berkeley Senior Center.

And it was only 40 cents.

Some mornings, I would get myself to the Senior Center as soon as it opened at eight. On other mornings, I was already coffee’d up from other sources. In that case, I would head straight to one of their pianos.

There were three pianos at the Senior Center. A nice Yamaha console upstairs, a Hamilton clunker in a corner room, and another decent Yamaha in the main auditorium. There, coffee was available, and lunch would be served for three bucks—or free if you were strapped.

But I didn’t want to play in the auditorium. There were too many people there, and I did not want to disturb them. Often, when I tried to play the piano somewhere—at a church for example—I was told to stop using their piano due to “insurance issues.” I guess the days of playing in U.C. dorms and practice rooms were gone, and I was generally pretty piano-starved throughout my homeless sojourn.

As for the piano upstairs, there was too much interference in the environment. Yoga classes going on, people on exercise bikes, cramped quarters. So I gravitated toward the piano in the corner of the building, which happened to be situated right next to the pool room.

Though it wasn’t the best piano, I certainly got the best reaction I could have hoped for at the time.  Usually, there were about ten homeless guys shooting pool in the room next door. I could hear them cheering, sometimes after every tune. Sometimes they all appeared outside the door—smiling and clapping, and asking for more. Once one of the guys came into the room and started snapping his fingers beside me, groovin’ on the sounds. (I remember it was during the song “Skylark” by Hoagy Carmichael.)

So I was getting the best of both worlds—a bit of practice and a bit of positive attention. A far cry from the mostly negative attention I was receiving from elsewhere.

But one day, as I approached the room with the piano, I saw a sign on the pool hall:

Closed for Repairs

Disturbed, I approached the lady at the front desk to complain.

“Why’d you close down the pool hall?” I asked Laurie. “Those guys were my only audience!”

“Nothing personal,” she began, “but your friends were getting drunk at eight in the morning, and kinda wreaking damage to the building. We had to kick them out to fix up the place. They can’t be drinking like that on our property.”

“Well,” I retorted, “I didn’t even notice they were drunk! I just thought they were an unusually appreciative audience.”

At that, Laurie didn’t miss a beat.

“Well play out here then!” she suggested, pointing to the main auditorium.

“But if I do that,” I replied, “all you guys will be able to hear me.”

“We WANT to hear you!!” she shouted, as though trying to jolt me out of a delusion.

“Oh,” I said, sorta shuffling in my shoes. “Well, in that case, I guess you can be my audience.”

The sense of identity crisis that went through my head at that moment was quite profound.  Why on earth would I only want to play the piano for other homeless people?

I think it was this. I had gotten so used to only being accepted by people who were outside, and being looked down upon by people who lived inside, I couldn’t imagine them doing anything other than to look down on me, even as I played the piano.

After all, my piano playing is not appreciated by all people at all times. Many people like it, but others don’t. Inside me, however, it was seen as something that gave me a sense of value. It separated me from the picture of the burned-out homeless person, having lost all incentive, having lost all hope.

I did not want to hear the cries of derision and mockery from people who lived indoors. I heard them too often on the streets, and I had not permitted them to touch my musicianship.

Until Now

For now, I started playing every morning in the main auditorium and was actually very surprised at the reception. Even a fellow from the Catholic church on whose ramp I slept stopped by, quizzically enjoying the music. I occasionally received tips from homeless people who hung out all day in the computer room.

It wasn’t long before I was doing a full-on concert at the North Berkeley Senior Center. People filmed me on their smartphones, using those big tripods. I still have footage from the concert, to this day.

I remember it was a momentous occasion. I even delayed an opportunity to rent a room on the Russian River from a Facebook friend-of-a-friend. I remember Jonathan, one of the men who helped run the Senior Center, trying to persuade me to take the room instead. He thought I should have jumped at the chance to grab a rental far away from the scene of my chronic homelessness, on the beautiful Russian River.

“No way!” I told him. “That room can wait!”

Needless to say, I lost the opportunity to get the room due to my unusual set of priorities. I did however show up for the show—in as fine a form as ever. How I enjoyed the discussion, the smiles—all the applause from people in my age group, people who appreciated music just like me, and who just happened to live indoors.

After the last song, which I believe was “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” I was so happy I crossed over to the other side of the auditorium to grab another cup of coffee.

There, I was denied my coffee—for I did not have 40 cents.

Homeless at the Piano
© 2022 Andy Pope

Special Youth Blog

ICE, Refugees and Justice

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Emma Lazurus, 1883

A refugee by definition is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster. These are typically people with no homes, no money, no tangible evidence of their past life, because they had to move often without any advanced warning for their survival. These are people who despite their former social class advantage are left with very little.

There are 26.4 million of these people in the world right now. According to Amnesty International, all refugees have the right to receive assistance, the right to protection from abuse and the freedom to seek asylum, regardless of who they are or where they come from. What does the United States have in order to help refugees? Well, one of the most notable and feared agencies is the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, famously known as ICE. ICE has one thing they are especially good at doing; sending many refugees back home. These refugees get sent back because they don’t have proper documentation, money or identification. Things I would assume that a refugee would have trouble attaining just based on the definition of a refugee.

We have to protect the values of our United States, the values our founding fathers used to create the constitution. The values that throughout United States history were exemplified by hope, refuge and new beginnings. For we are truly the land of second chances. The Statue of Liberty offers a beacon of hope to those around the world that the United States is the home of freedom and liberty. ICE contradicts these values. ICE. isn’t patriotic. The agency seems to be interested in preventing some people from getting to experience these patriotic values.

I have a question for each of you. Are your family members or ancestors immigrants? If so, they likely moved to the United States for freedom and hope or whatever reason that was important to them. Aren’t you glad that they did that so you can have the life you have? Aren’t you glad that the family your ancestors started is here? Aren’t you proud of your heritage, whatever it may be? So why do we want to restrict other people from doing the same? Do we not want to give them the chance to build a family and a life, just like yours did?

This past summer Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Now, there are more than five million Afghan refugees, many of which are trying to flee to the United States for safety. The U.S. response has been to send most of these refugees to holding centers or other places outside of the United States. They denied these people safety. Will they do the same to Ukrainians fleeing the war?

I work in a restaurant and many of the Immigrants I work with are afraid. One of my friends is constantly afraid of getting deported to Mexico, even though he is legally here and not even from Mexico. My friend works every day to support his family. He is 17 and goes to high school and has two jobs. He is the father figure to his younger brothers and he supports his mom financially. Why would ICE deport him, an honest kid just trying to give a better life to his mother and brothers? Why does he live in fear when he has not done anything wrong?

When I read about these people, they aren’t just statistics but mothers, fathers and my friends who are scared, scared for their future and their children’s future. They are not wealthy or influential, but they work hard and are decent and honest people just trying to live.

“Refugee Admissions – United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 8 Oct. 2021, www.state.gov/refugee-admissions/.

My story of wage differentials in a small factory                   

David H. Slavin

In the early 1970s, I helped found the “NY Collective,” a group of ex-SDS student radicals who had transitioned to workplace organizing.  It later became Harper’s Ferry Organization and counted Theodore William Allen [author of the 2 vol. history _The Invention of the White Race_] among its founding members.  Between jobs in the Post Office and the NY Transit Authority, I sought work in one of what at the time were hundreds of small factories in Long Island City (Queens). Noticing a ‘help wanted’ sign at one factory door, I walked in–off the street and filled out a short application.  The foreman hired me on the spot.  The shop handmade high-end, polished wood restaurant bars along with sinks and other stainless steel commercial kitchen equipment.  I thought it would be great opportunity to learn a skilled trade in wood working. After filing my paperwork, the foreman took me aside and said, “Listen.  I’m going to start you at $1.75 an hour, but keep it under your hat because other guys’ starting salaries are less.”   He took me from the office to the shop.  To my disappointment we passed through the woodworking section, where the workers were mostly middle-aged white men, and on to the steel sink manufacturing area in the back, where the workers were mostly young Hispanics.   The foreman left me with the Hispanic lead worker.  My first job was using a nail gun to knock together wooden shipping crates to protect finished sinks while they were being transported.

I can’t crawl inside the foreman’s head, but clearly he had decided to pay me more because he perceived me to be white and decided that I would need the incentive of a “white wage” to stick with the job.  Other factors, such as English fluency and my claim to high school education (unverified except by the fact that I filled out the application form quickly and without errors), likely influenced his decision.   Even those factors were part of my “white package,” so, realistically, his preferential treatment of me came down to race.   So I faced the classic dilemma of solidarity or favoritism from the moment I walked in the door of the plant.

At this point in the story I might ask readers, what would be my next step, or flippantly (but respectfully) “what would Jesus do?” Unskilled or semi-skilled factory work may be more rare today than forty years ago, but as union contracts are torn up, union strength erodes, management imposes two-tier wages and benefit plans, labor laws are ever more laxly enforced, and as production in many IT-based sectors increasingly isolates workers, employers have been able to eliminate statutory starting pay and raises based on seniority, inflation and other objective criteria.  Bargaining for wages has become less collective than at any time since the 1930s.  Bosses and free market economists love to present such negotiations as two equal parties making a contract, an illusion that masks the realities of asymmetrical power — of who owns the means of production as private property protected by the full power of the state — and who has the ability to pit groups of workers against each other in a drive to the bottom, locally or globally and everywhere in between.

Before I divulge my course of action, I want to mention several solutions suggested by two longtime activists who attended a talk I gave in 2007 at the US Social Forum in Atlanta: one a community organizer and the other a union organizer.  The former advised that I go back to the foreman and argue with him that paying me more was unfair to the other workers.  I pointed out that in the context of class struggle, saying anything to any foreman except in the company of the rest of the workers in the shop, or through a union rep, was foolish and losing proposition.  Going up against him alone identified me as a troublemaker who could be isolated if not fired.  Individualism makes every working person vulnerable, and it ignores the main strength of workers–solidarity, their ability to band together and defend each other as part of the working class.

The union organizer, years my senior and with decades of experienced, counseled proceeding with caution.  Spend a few weeks gaining the trust of the other workers, doing my job, eating lunch with them, etc., he said.  Then tell them about the wage differential.  In other words, he advised lying by omission until I gained their “trust” only to reveal how I had betrayed it.   Moreover, this “organizer” was unable to see or understand what the 15 cents an hour was doing to _me_ as the recipient of this largesse.  The secret deal put me under tacit obligation to, and in collusion with, the foreman.  It made me beholden to him and isolated me from my fellow workers.  The 10% differential acted like a poison pill, creating dependency on the boss.  It neutralized and neutered me as a worker.  To understand that lesson — solidarity first, last and always — “organizers” need to spend their time on the shop floor listening to their comrades, building awareness of power inequalities, and raising their own class consciousness before advocating a course of action.

I took the following steps:  After spending the morning under the direction of the lead man in the metal shop, who spoke English, taught me the job and watched me carrying out the tasks until he was satisfied I could do them safely (his number one priority) on my own.  At the first chance I could, the morning coffee break, I told him that the foreman had hired me at $1.75 an hour.  His face went dark, and he immediately told the others in Spanish.  He then pointed out two or three young men and said “these guys have been working here for 18 months and are still making $1.60.”  Out of the dozen or so in the shop, everyone was upset or angry, directing not a little hostility at me.

My Spanish was passable at the time; I thought I could make myself understood.  So I said in a firm voice, “Estoy listo de ir a la huelga para todos los companeros muchachos ganar $1.75.”   I’m ready to go on strike for all the comrades – guys to get $1.75 an hour.

The barometric pressure in the room changed, and the impending storm shifted course from the “white boy” to the foreman.  They huddled, speaking too rapidly for me to understand.  I think they were discussing a walkout.  There was no strike, but some time that afternoon the lead man and several others went to the foreman and gave him a piece of their collective mind.  As for me, I was accepted, more fully by some, including the lead man, more grudgingly by others.   But I was a part of the shop, not a tool of the boss.  Over the next days, they told me stories.

All were Dominicans, many coming up to the US after LBJ sent in the marines in 1965 to overthrow Juan Bosch and the leftist, democratically elected regime he led.  Many had been “communists,” i.e. union workers in the Dominican Republic.  The union in this shop, the Carpenters Union, was one of the most corrupt in NYC.  The only grievances it ever processed were those of the white cabinet makers in the front room.  The only time my guys ever saw a union business agent was to inform them of dues increases.   The powerlessness of the union was clear to me.  In a shop with a union with real teeth, a foreman wouldn’t dare to take it on himself to pay more — or less — than the union scale.

One last point: at the end of the day the foreman angrily took me aside and said something to the effect that “I told you to keep your mouth shut. You made a lot of trouble for me today.”  I decided the best defense was to play “dumb worker” and mumbled something about, gee it must have just slipped out.  Punching out, I went chuckling on my way home.  A few days later, I recounted the story to a meeting of Harper’s Ferry, and I never saw Ted Allen looking so pleased.  I had slain the Jabberwock, white privilege. He positively chortled.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?/ Come to my arms, my beamish boy! / O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! / He chortled in his joy.

JABBERWOCKY  Lewis Carroll  (from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)

Living Wage

By Micheal Greenwood

There is a lot of talk in Washington D.C. and elsewhere these days about increasing the Federal minimal wage to $15.00 from $7.25 which was set in 2009.   Today, inflation has made that 2009 dollar worth 72 cents.

Many states have already increased their minimum hourly wage.  Is your state one of them? 

To learn if it is follow this link, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/minimum-wage  or  https://www.epi.org/publication/labor-day-2019-minimum-wage

Even if your state does exceed the current minimum hourly wage of $7.25 an hour, is it enough to meet the cost of living where you reside?  To learn if it is, follow this link https://livingwage.mit.edu So when we talk about an hourly wage of $15.00 remember it still is not a living wage for most folks in the United Sates.

 

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