Al Crosby didn’t gain fame until we had all left Washington State University and the little town of Pullman, out in the middle of the wheat fields. All our changes were there.
Al was the rare professor who bridged the generation gap and communed with us students. He even lived with us for a time in the Rosa Luxemburg Collective, a 40-something among us 20-something student radicals. I’m not sure I ever adequately apologized for that inedible garbanzo loaf. If any of you Rosa communards are reading this, I’d like to do so now. In my defense, I was stoned on acid.
Those were turbulent times. We vigorously protested the war in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia, the genocidal impulses of our rogue government. But our big student strike in the spring of 1970 was about racism. The university administration met our demand for a Black Studies program and Al, the white guy with the Boston accent, was tapped to teach Black History. That changed his life, and he changed our lives.
Thirty-five years later I was reading Charles Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and I kept seeing Alfred Crosby referred to in footnotes. Could it be OUR Al? Of course, by then I could google him. I learned that Al’s 1972 book The Columbian Exchange had revolutionized the way historians view history! Al invented the concept of environmental history. He wrote a few other books as well, including Ecological Imperialism and a little history of explosions, Throwing Fire. He had become an expert on the flu epidemic of 1918 and I just saw him interviewed on PBS American Experience.
Some of us old communards got in touch and began a correspondence. Al had retired and was living with his wife Fran Karttunen on Nantucket Island. That’s where he died, of Parkinson’s disease, at Our Island Home where he had lived for two years.
Fran wrote to me: Al drew his last breath on March 14. There had been a tremendous wind and snow storm. Al waited out the storm and when it had passed and the sun was shining on fresh snow, Al followed Stephen Hawking into some other dimension where I would like to think of the two of them sharing a good laugh at the universe.
Chuck and I bonded on a walk of the Fort Point Gang along San Francisco’s waterfront. The Gang was remembering dead communists and labor leaders whose names are inscribed on wooden benches at Fort Point, and also observing May Day, the workers’ holiday commemorating the birth of the eight-hour-day. We fell into an easy pace and Chuck told me he was a retired piledriver and carpenter. I learned that Chuck was a long-time member of the Piledrivers Union Local 34. I’m a retired electrician and so we talked about construction work. Chuck was the only black person in the group of old Reds. He, along with many in the Gang, had been a member of the Communist Party USA. Along with most of his comrades, Chuck left the party, but the FBI kept on surveilling him for years.
It was my first walk with the Gang. I’d been angling for an invitation to join and was delighted to be invited by a friend I’d known in the labor movement. It had really been started as a walking group, a way to get some exercise, by the seaman Bill Bailey and some of his pals. Since sometime in the 70s, the group had been meeting every Thursday near the St. Francis Yacht Club and walking to Fort Point and back, a distance of about four miles. Afterward we would adjourn for lunch at the Seal Rock Inn near Land’s End.
Chuck Cannon grew up in a small all-black community, Lake Como, in Fort Worth, Texas, and some years ago he started a blog about his hometown. By his account it was a wonderful childhood in a place where everybody knew everybody, although racism loomed large. He told me about hunting rabbits and squirrels and recalled vivid memories of the Texas prairie. He named the blog “ Warm Prairie Wind.”
In 2010, soon after we met, Chuck fell from a ladder while working on his house, breaking his right leg when it got stuck between the rungs. He was 82 then and never fully recovered. Over the years Chuck had remodeled the family’s 1910 Craftsman-style home, upgrading bathrooms, kitchen, bedrooms, building a basement garage and driveway and adding a deck off the kitchen. He was a handy guy with a full shop in the basement. And he didn’t let his poorly healed leg stop him. He rebuilt the deck, rigging it so he didn’t have to get on a ladder to do the work.
But by the time I came along, he and everyone else were too old and slow to make the whole walk with the Gang. By the time he died, at the end of 2016, he had not been walking far but, at 89, he kept walking. His wife of 64 years, Yvonne, a remarkable poet, would always be with him on the walks and I feel so lucky to have become friends with her as well. Yvonne became my writing teacher when I joined her group at a local senior center. Yvonne and Chuck raised three daughters together and found acceptance as a bi-racial couple in their Inner Richmond District neighborhood.
The deaths of the members of the Fort Point Gang mark the end of an era. The old commies represent a generation of people who sacrificed much in the service of justice and equality. They inspire me to fight the good fight.
I was delighted to be asked to eulogize Carla at a memorial for her at the Bayview Opera House on July 23, which would have been her 57th birthday. The Opera House is just now reopening after a restoration which Carla, as head of the Mayor’s Office on Disability, had a big part in. Her office provided vital funding for disability access, and now wheelchair users can enter through the front door. Here’s what I said about Carla.
Carla Johnson was my bestie. I loved her. I introduced her to her wife Anna. Carla and I worked together as building inspectors through the 90s; we worked on each other’s old houses for decades (of course we had permits for everything). Together we negotiated the prejudices we faced as women in the building trades. There were many. Still are.
From the time she made her first cutting board in high school shop class, Carla Johnson wanted to be a carpenter. She quit school at Cal to follow her dream and didn’t finish college till years later. She became a builder, working for small contractors and for a women’s carpentry collective called Seven Sisters Construction.
In those days, it wasn’t easy for women to get training (still isn’t). Carla learned the carpentry trade by reading. She told me she would just ask at the end of every day, “What are we doing tomorrow?” Then she would go home and open her carpentry books and the first thing the next morning she’d start throwing the terminology around. “So, we’re going to put the joists 16 inches on center, right. We’re going to start with the header joist.” She was assigned to be crew boss because she was the one who consistently showed up on time.
Later, she did maintenance on Victorian buildings for a property management company. She got a lot of love from tenants for keeping the systems going. She was a skilled locksmith. She could rehang a door that had been kicked in before the tenants got home from work. She could jerry rig the boiler so tenants would have hot water till the boiler repairperson could get there. Carla loved old buildings. She loved old houses, old trucks, old things. Things with some history in them.
For a time she had her own business, Carla’s Custom Care Construction. No doubt she worked on the homes of some of you in this room. Then she got a civil service job working as a carpenter at the Department of Public Works where she felt privileged to work on City Hall and other historic public buildings.
I didn’t meet Carla till after the saw accident that mangled her left hand and changed her life. It was shocking that such an accident could happen to her. She was the most risk-adverse safety-conscious person I ever met (a trait that sometimes drove her friends crazy).
She told me she couldn’t even remember the date it happened in 1992, which she said is a good thing for people with PTSD. She lost her little finger and she suffered through many long surgeries to repair her ring finger, and a year of rehab. She was disabled. She couldn’t earn a living as a carpenter anymore.
She told me the first thing that her workers comp attorney said to her when she got out of the hospital was, “I want to tell you about this new law that just went into effect.” Her employer had an obligation under Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide her with a reasonable accommodation–to place her in a job where she could still use the skills without the tools. That’s how she came to work at the Department of Building Inspection. Carla was happy when she was assigned to the Castro as a district inspector. She always loved working with “my people.”
One job of a building inspector is to perfect the art of saying no, not always an easy thing to do, especially if you’ve been on the receiving end as a contractor who has to do the job over after you fail inspection. Carla, with her quiet thoughtful demeanor, could say no and make you feel grateful for her advice.
She developed a reputation as a stickler for the building code’s technical details. Competent contractors who played by the rules liked her. Sloppy mechanics with poor workmanship hated her. Stairs are required by code to be the exact same height for a reason. Varying stair heights can cause falls. Carla carried a measuring tape and she used it. Our friend Nina Saltman just now told me about a job she ran that failed Carla’s inspection because it was a quarter inch off. She is not the only one who tells that story.
Carla became an expert on disability access. And she became a skillful advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. At DBI she saved us taxpayers money by resolving disability issues out of court. Then she moved over to the Mayor’s Office on Disability and she eventually was promoted to head that department.
When Carla called me to tell me she had just been diagnosed with stage IV metastasized breast cancer, I said, “I’m coming over now.” I ran the five blocks to find Carla and Anna standing in front of their house conferring.
“I need help,” Carla said when I got there.
“Anything,” I said, grateful there was something I could do to help my sick friend.
“I need you to get up on the roof.” She wanted me to accompany her to check whether the roofers who worked on the house next door damaged her roof. This was so very Carla. She wouldn’t be able to rest until she made sure her roof was sound.
Carla was fascinated by the details of city government. She would entertain herself during nights of insomnia by watching commission meetings on the public TV channel. I will especially miss talking about city government and politics with Carla over a beer at the Wildside or the Lucky Horseshoe. It was a topic that bored our wives and most friends.
Carla was the kind of civil servant all citizens want working for us, who understands she is there to make our lives better. But at heart she was a carpenter, a builder. She built a life that impacted so many of us, she built institutions, she built buildings, she built a marriage, a home, a neighborhood, lasting relationships.
We marvel at her legacy. And now those of us who are left must do the maintenance.
In the middle of the day on a Thursday, my bestie’s name showed up on my iPhone. I was so delighted to hear her voice, I didn’t get some clues. Carla didn’t usually call me on the phone—that’s so last decade. Texting was more typical. Also it was a time when she is usually working. I rarely tried to contact her at work, which is one reason we hadn’t talked or texted much. It seemed like she was always working. I didn’t stop to ask why she was calling me at such an unlikely time, or even how she was.
Her news chilled me; she had just been diagnosed with stage IV metastasized breast cancer.
My reaction, then and for the next weeks, was “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
“I’m coming over now,” I said. Carla lived a few blocks away.
“I need help,” Carla said when I got there.
“Anything,” I said, grateful there was something I could do to help my sick friend.
“I need you to get up on the roof with me to check whether the roofers who worked on the house next door damaged my roof.” This was so very Carla. She wouldn’t be able to rest until she made sure her roof was sound.
I was once a construction worker, and spent years remodeling my own home (with Carla’s frequent help), and I’ve no aversion to climbing up on roofs. But at age 66, it’s not something I do often anymore. Carla was ten years my junior. We held the ladder for each other, inspected the roof. No damage had been done. Then Carla needed to rest. I think we both knew that that was the last time she would climb onto her roof. It would be the last time for a lot of things. We had met for a beer at the Wild Side West just a week earlier. That would be our last beer at the Wild Side. She had helped me solve a plumbing problem the month before. There would be no more plumbing in Carla’s future.
Before: foundation work in the garage.
After: Carla’s shop was always immaculate. That’s my right angle drill messing it up.
She designed and made all the cabinets.
Now, just over two months later, I’ve changed the tense to past. My bestie Carla died this morning.
Carla was a fabulous finish carpenter, a stickler of a building inspector, a fierce disability rights activist and a super competent department head. She was at the top of her game as the director of the San Francisco Mayor’s Office on Disability. I do intend to eulogize Carla Johnson at length, but for now I’m just grieving the loss of my dear friend. Rest in Power Carla Jean.
My good friend Bob Jolly died March 20, 2016, just short of his 90th birthday.
Bob was interested in everything, which is the reason we first met, sometime in the late 1980s. Bob introduced himself at a reading by tradeswomen authors at Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco. Bob’s daughter had chosen to go into the printing trade and, along with just trying to be a supportive dad, he was interested in the lives and writings of women in nontraditional jobs.
And so began Bob’s long association with Tradeswomen Inc. Bob volunteered to help us with Tradeswomen Magazine, and as a former English teacher he was a skilled editor and proofreader. Now, when I look at the old issues of the magazine, I cringe at all the uncorrected typos before Bob entered our world. Bob was also a fine writer and often contributed pieces for the magazine, from stories about his daughter to a book review about women lighthouse keepers to the history of women in engineering.
When I took Bob to dinner to recruit him for the Tradeswomen Inc. board of directors, the young waiter asked with a condescending smile, “Is this your father?” “No,” said Bob, “we are just friends.” Clearly the waiter didn’t think friendship was one of the categories a man and a woman two decades younger could fit into. But Bob and I really were great friends. Besides collaborating on publishing projects, we hiked and biked together all over the East Bay Regional Park lands where he volunteered as a ranger.
Bob served on the Tradeswomen Inc. board for many years, the only man on the board at that time. He maintained a quiet presence in the midst of energetic and outspoken women and we all loved that the one man on the board took on the traditional female role of secretary. Bob took great notes.
Bob and his wife, Connie, were members of the Berkeley Friends Meeting, the Quakers. A committed pacifist, he had spent time in jail for protesting the Vietnam War. He told me jail wasn’t bad at all and he met interesting people there, but he hadn’t counted on how traumatic it would be for his kids, who were quite young, to have their father in jail. He also worked with the American Friends Service Committee’s GI rights project advising men and women serving in the military about their rights. He and Connie were among the founding members of the East Bay Chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
We will miss Bob’s dry humor and clever puns. I was glad to see him the week before he died. We talked and laughed remembering old times. Connie testified that he was in no pain and was making jokes and telling stories right till the end. He died smiling.
Memorial services will be held on April 22 at 1:30 PM at Grand Lake Gardens, 401 Santa Clara Ave. in Oakland, and at 2:00 PM on April 23 at the Berkeley Friends Meeting, 2151 Vine St. Berkeley.
Contributions in Bob Jolly’s name may be sent to the following organizations:
AFSC “Peace Building/GI Rights”, 65 9th St. San Francisco CA 94103
The Wilderness Society, 1615 M St., Washington, D.C. 20036
American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, 39 Drumm St., San Francisco CA, 94111
Berkeley Society of Friends, 2151 Vine St., Berkeley CA 94709
I lost two dear friends last year, Alice Fialkin and Ruth Maguire. When the New York Times put out a call for 400-word essays about people who died in 2015, I wrote about my friends. Their stories didn’t make it into the Times, and so here they are. Just pretend you are reading the Times Sunday magazine section.
Alice Fialkin 1946-2015
Alice Fialkin and I reconnected just as she began losing her mind. The process of getting to know her again was fraught with misunderstandings and conflict. Our friendship taught me a lot about how to interact with a person with cognitive disability and helped me acknowledge my own cognitive limitations.
We had known each other in the 1970s as tradeswomen activists. I broke into the electrician trade. Alice was one of the first women in our generation to get a job as a city bus driver in San Francisco, one job category that has since been integrated by race and gender. Alice became active in the transit workers union and was elected president of the union local. Years passed and we lost touch. When we found each other again after we’d both retired, we learned that we had lived just two blocks from each other for 25 years.
We began walking and doing local precinct work together. When we learned that neighbors were losing their homes to foreclosure, we joined with others to form an Occupy group in our neighborhood, Bernal Heights. We went door to door talking to folks on the foreclosure lists and, in coalition with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), saved the homes of many neighbors by occupying banks and foreclosed homes, protesting home auctions and renegotiating with banks for better mortgage terms.
Alice had survived three bouts of breast cancer, but she also complained of chemo brain, a condition finally acknowledged by the medical establishment. I began to see that Alice had trouble retrieving her emails and had difficulty using her smart phone. She became paranoid. She misinterpreted social interactions and felt that everyone was against her, and often she would confront me asking why I was mad at her. Still, she continued to participate in meetings and community events. Our Occupy group made room for her and valued her long experience as an activist.
As Alice was dying and suffering from worsening dementia, the movie Still Alice, about a woman experiencing Alzheimer’s disease, was playing in theaters. I was hesitant to see it, but was glad I did. The movie helped me to understand what life must have been like from her perspective. Just as Alice Fialkin had, the movie’s protagonist Alice did the best she could to continue to engage in life.
Ruth Maguire 1925-2015
“A major influence in my life was my many years in the Communist movement,” said Ruth Maguire in a letter to friends and family on the occasion of her 90th birthday earlier this year. “I feel that becoming 90 is kind of a moment of reckoning.”
As a Boomer who has cultivated a romantic attachment to old commies, I was delighted to meet Ruth at a May Day celebration of Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans. Her ex-husband of many years ago, Bill Bailey, had been an ALB vet. Then I got to know Ruth while recording her oral history. Her parents had emigrated from a shtetl in a small town in Poland a century ago. She grew up in Los Angeles and lived most of her life in the San Francisco Bay Area, raising three children.
Ruth joined the Young Pioneers, the Communist Party youth group, as a kid. “In the 30s and 40s, it was not outlandish to be a Communist. It was a legal political party; it ran candidates; it had a vision of a better life for struggling people everywhere,” she wrote. She left the party in the 1950s, but she never changed her core beliefs. She appeared in the 1983 documentary film Seeing Red.
The Communist Party taught people how to organize. Ruth and a couple of other single mothers started a pre-feminist organization, Mothers Alone Working, in the early 1960s. Their demands for childcare and programs to aid working mothers were echoed a decade later by my generation of feminists.
Ruth was most proud of her work helping to open and manage the first integrated housing development in San Francisco, built with the sponsorship of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Until the end of her life, Ruth continued working for justice and against war and racism. She was right behind me in the Climate Action March in Oakland last year when I turned around and snapped her photo.
She wrote: “I didn’t do anything great in this life. I wasn’t an inspiring teacher, I didn’t cure cancer, I didn’t write a great book or compose beautiful music, I sure didn’t end our wars. But I did participate in the issues and struggles of my time. That gave my life purpose and meaning.”
Ruth Maguire died in December from metastatic breast cancer.