“Taxi! Taxi!”

“Taxi! Taxi!”
I was recently in downtown Berkeley near  Berkeley City College and I saw a line of cabs with their drivers standing around talking in four different languages waiting for fares (passengers). It did not resemble the cast of the TV show “Taxi” at all!  People who are looking for work and have little experience often seek my advice on getting a job. Many of them say they want to work with people and make a difference.  I ask them if they have a clean driving record.  If they do I tell them – drive a cab!

I first started driving a Taxicab in January 1968, right after my 19th birthday. I was going to City College in Philadelphia and unemployed. I saw a notice in the want ads that said Yellow Cab had just lowered the age for drivers from 21 to 18. I jumped at the chance! My black Volkswagen Beetle (named Bernadette) had just blown its engine because I had never checked the oil. I saw this as an opportunity not only to make money, and have a car to drive, but also to see the world. The world being all the parts of Philadelphia and the surrounding area I had never been to.

I showed up that first day at 9:00 am. They asked for my driver’s license and said the only other requirement was to pass the driving test. Back then drivers license didn’t haven’t any pictures on them and I could have been anyone. There was no interview, no application, no questions asked. That was it! The driving test consisted of five of us in a Plymouth, three speed manual transmission, and shift on the column. The veteran cab driver, who tested us, said before we took off, “You all passed already so don’t be nervous.” I thought he was kidding! It turned out two people had never driven a stick shift before and one of them had only gotten their drivers license a week earlier. We took turns driving. I was the first one to drive. The instructor commented on how smooth I was. The next driver, who had never touched a clutch in his life, stalled the car three times before he could get it moving. The first time he came to a stop light the car stalled again. There was a smell of burning clutch. The next driver almost got hit by a bus. I wanted to jump out of the cab. We were on Wissahickon Drive – the same road on which the singer Teddy Pendergras got into his infamous accident, and became paralyzed. After an hour of taking turns we somehow made it back to the garage. The instructor was true to his word. He told the dispatcher in charge, “They did great, they all passed.” I was shocked! What was being unleashed on the public? We were instructed to return at 3:00 pm, later that day, wearing a white shirt and black slacks, to start an eight hour shift. Only four of the five people I took the test with showed up at 3:00 pm. They told us we had to join the union, and gave us a black plastic brimmed cap to wear. We were Philadelphia cab drivers.

After my first eight hour shift I returned around midnight to the garage prepared to hear horror stories about my fellow rookie drivers. Five minutes after I pulled in the clutch burner, and the one week driver both drove in as smooth as silk. They were smiling from ear to ear. I think they were surprised as much as I was that they had survived the first night. I never talked to them again. Unlike Taxi on TV, we rarely had friendly banter or socialized after a shift, mostly because we spent most of the night trying to steal each other’s cab fares.

I occasionally drove during the day, and hated it. Between rush hour traffic and people calling you to the supermarket for a two block fare, daytime was a bummer. One good thing about being a cab driver is that unlike a bus driver I could decide who to pick up. That’s why I also didn’t like house calls. You never knew who you were picking up or what was happening on the other side of the door before you rang the bell. Domestic violence, family feuds, people needing to go to the hospital. Some people would call a cab, when they should have called for the police or an ambulance. I’ve seen it all

I eventually went to the late night 12 hour shift – 6:00pm to 6:00am. I met some fun folks and usually had a ball. People were mostly loaded and in a good mood. They were going and coming from parties, shows, bars and they tipped well. The occasional temperamental passenger and confrontational drunk gave me a lot of opportunities to practice some of the same skills I use today in diffusing negative situations. Every night I would also ask who got in my cab the same one or two questions. It was a great random sample of the mood of the City. If you think about it people that rode in cabs were the rich who could afford it; the poor who couldn’t afford a car; and the folks in the middle. I learned a lot.

The cab became my personal ride. I rarely made any money. I went on dates, concerts, drove friends around and occasionally paid the meter myself in order to show some income. I considered it paying a car rental fee. Whatever I made on the meter I split at the end of the night with the cab company. If the dome light on top of the cab was on that meant the meter was off (flag-high) and the cab company wasn’t making any money. They had supervisors who rode around all day looking for drivers that were flag high. I got written up constantly for being flag high – riding with passengers, the meter off and the dome light on. Eventually I was given a termination notice and sent to the shop steward.

I went to the union office in South Philly. There were five or six burly Italian guys sitting around smoking cigars, playing cards, wearing white tank tops (commonly referred to as wife beaters today), suspenders, and some even had on spats over their shoes. This was before the movie Goodfellas, but believe, me I knew who they were, and a smiled spread across my face as I realized that I wasn’t about to lose my job. Someone scribbled something on the termination notice I handed them and said, “Take this back to the dispatcher and tell him to fuhged aboudit!” I was a Teamster, Jimmy Hoffa, Local 107, and I had job security.

Every morning when I brought the cab in at 6:00 am there were notices on the bulletin board. Sometimes they said Winston Burton report to the office at 8:00 am (that’s another reason I worked from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am), but too often they were about a cab driver getting robbed, look out for this type of car, beware of a certain address and other bad news. Usually when drivers were robbed they were forced in the trunk and their cab key taken. They would wait awhile and climb from the trunk into the back seat. Some drivers got robbed so often that they carried an extra cab key, and would keep on driving.
One day there was a look-out notice for a suspect who had tied a cab driver to a tree and killed him with a hatchet.

It was July 1968, another failing semester of college was done and my thoughts were all over the place. I handed in my cab keys and turned west to California where my brother was living. I realize now that I had only driven a cab for six months, but oh what a life changing experience.

In 1980 I was unemployed and living in Oakland. I had gotten a job offer to work at a local employment program, but I wouldn’t get my first paycheck for at least two weeks. I had a choice to eat that night or wait two weeks, and I was hungry. Once again I returned to the late night world of the three c’s – cops, crooks and cabs. After my first cab fare I took the eight dollars I had made and went to the Hof Brau on Broadway in downtown Oakland an had a huge roast beef sandwich. On the way out I was approached by a guy in a wheelchair who had asked if I was back on duty and if he could get a ride. Some cab drivers did not like to pick-up people in wheelchairs, not necessarily because they were callous, but mostly because they wanted to do as little as possible, (the same reason I didn’t like supermarket fares). Another reason was because many people with disabilities paid with script or vouchers instead of cash, and cabbies (lazy or not) would do anything for a good cash tip. But not me! I put his wheelchair in the trunk and helped him into the backseat of the cab. He slumped down having difficulty sitting upright on his own, so while I was driving I heard his voice, but never could see his face. We took off on a clear summer’s night and he gave me an address on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley. I thought what a good fare this is, the start of a good night. It was about 7:30 pm.

Not being able to see him in my rear view mirror somehow added to our conversation which was non-stop and we had many things in common. We were about the same age, he had once lived in Philadelphia, and we both liked Miles, Jimi and Coltrane – my favorite music makers. Like me he had a live-in girlfriend and we swapped tales about people, places and things in our past as well as plans for our future.

When we got close to his house he stopped talking. There was about a two minute pause and he said, “I used to drive a cab.” “Where and when”, I asked. “In Oakland! I used to drive about five years ago before I got hurt”, he said. “How did you get hurt, and why did you stop driving,” I inquired. What he told me next changed my life, my career and how I viewed people and the world forever. “What I remember was that I was driving a cab in downtown Oakland late at night, and I picked up a man near the Hof Brau where you met me. The next thing I remember was being in a hospital bed hooked up to various machines. I found out later that I had been in the hospital for about a month, in and out of consciousness. I had several operations during that time to repair as much damage as possible from a bullet wound to the back of my skull. To this day there’s still a piece in my head they didn’t remove. The police never caught the person who shot me. They said they found me slumped in the front seat, cab still running, and they surmised that the assailant shot me with no warning at a red light, grabbed my cash and took off.

“I never talk about this, but for some reason I felt compelled to tell you my story, as if I’ve known you for along time”, he said. I was blown away! “I’m glad you told me. Sometimes talking about things helps with the healing”, I said half heartedly. I realized that we had been sitting in front of the address he had given me for almost an hour (meter turned off) just yakking away. I opened the door and retrieved his wheelchair from the trunk. He seemed a lot heavier putting him back in the chair than he did taking him out. (Maybe because my legs felt wobbly.) I offered to push him up the driveway, which was slightly inclined, to his doorway. He declined my help, but I insisted. As we got close to the house an attractive woman opened the door and said, “Are you alright? I noticed the cab in front of the house over a half an hour ago.” “Just guy talk,” my fare said. He paid the cab bill, in cash, but I declined the tip. As I walked down the hill to my cab I saw her standing behind the wheel chair, the two of them silhouetted in the doorway waving goodbye. I thought that could be me. It was 9:30 pm. I had seven hours left on a ten hour shift. I drove back to the garage and turned in my cab and keys and I haven’t driven a cab since.

I still think that a lot of what I know of human nature and dealing with the public I learned driving a cab. It could be a required college course or community service like military mandatory inscription in some countries. For many it’s a noble profession – learn American culture, human nature, your community and English at the same time you’re getting paid. People who are looking for work and have little experience often seek my advice on getting a job. Many of them say they want to work with people and make a difference. I ask them if they have a clean driving record. If they do I still tell them – drive a cab. Driving a cab was one of my favorite jobs, even though I fell off the horse and never got back on.

Line Rage

Line Rage

Before you read this article take a five count. Slowly inhale through your nose for five seconds, hold your breath for five seconds and than slowly exhale through your mouth counting to five.

Who needs a road or a vehicle to be in a rage, a shopping cart can do just fine. Some people seem to think that by pushing their shopping cart in your behind in the check out line the cashier will move faster. I’ve also noticed people behind me counting the items in my cart to make sure it was 15 or less. (Are 10 cans of Alpo considered one item or 10, it’s all dog food). Also when someone finally has their groceries rung up and they pull out coupons – look out! The sighs and groans that come from the line are only duplicated by the changing of cashiers or someone being sentenced to jail.

Line rage at the DMV got so bad that you’ll occasionally see an armed state trooper roaming the lobby instead of patrolling the highways. They’ve also introduced appointments.

Line rage is not always unjustifiable. It can be brought on by rude store personnel or by someone standing in line in front of you waving for their three friends to join them.
I’ve recently read in the Daily Planet of long lines and people’s discontent with poor service at the post office. Uh oh! We don’t need the public going “postal” too.

But all is not lost, yet. I have some suggestions.
“Not in a hurry, left early” – That’s my new mantra. It gives me, and especially those who are incompetent, time to handle their business.
Reading tabloids – I look forward to standing in line as an opportunity to read the Enquirer, Globe and all those other papers that I have never purchased and never will. Who knows! Maybe Elvis and Jimi Hendrix really did come from another planet. Perhaps they can even install news racks at the post office and DMV.
Be nice – Sometimes I turn to the impatient person behind me and insist they go in front of me. It confounds the hell out of them.
The five second count – Recently I’ve had to go as high as a 10 second count. But watch out! I can only hold my breath for so long.

I’m amazed at the length some people will go to gain a few extra minutes out of a 24 hour day. We’ve all heard of fistfights and shootings on the freeway because someone wanted to get few car lengths ahead of someone else. Impatience causes stress, and stress is a leading cause of death in America.
Beware! Those few minutes you may gain rushing about could be the cause of your demise. Not in a hurry, left early!

Winston Burton
Former shopping cart racer
(1…2…3…4…5…)

This Time Next Year

This Time Next Year
By Winston Burton

I was in Atlantic City, New Jersey at my aunt’s 95th birthday party. Her name was Pricilla, but everyone called her “Ant Gussie.” She had outlived all of her friends and contemporaries, and was the matriarch and Griot (oral historian) of our family. She was the one who passed down to us not just our own history, but what it was like growing up in a racially divided America, living as a black woman, in the South and in Philadelphia during the early Twentieth Century. Someone asked, “Gussie are you having fun?” She said, “I’m just fine, but I won’t be here this time next year.” I thought that was kind of morbid! Later, after she blew out the number 95 candle on her cake, I asked, “Hey, Ant Gussie, how about some words of wisdom?” “Well, this has been a marvelous party,” she said “but I’m not going to be here this time next year.” I gave her a loving look and assured her. “Yes you are, you’re not going to die, and we won’t let you.” “Die! Who said anything about dying? This time next year I’m going to have a party in New York City!”

For a major part of my life especially in my twenties and thirties my optimism and pessimism had been driven by the thought – this time next year. It was why I did things and why I didn’t. I knew in my mind that by this time next year, no matter what was actually happening, I would either be dead or rich. There was no in between. It was why I got in and out of relationships, in and out of jobs, and in and out of trouble. Sometimes it was positive. I made impulsive moves that took me on adventures and places I would never have gone, and I took chances that taught me things I would never have learned. It was also how I dealt with pain. I knew that no matter how much something hurt, this time next year I would feel different, if not better. However, more often than not, I would find myself a year later broke and still alive with a whole lot of apologizing to do. A trail of regrets and people I either hurt or disappointed, never living up to my potential, occasionally on the run.

Almost everyday, I’m horrified when I read of young people killing each other, robbing each other, and going to jail for long stretches of time. They have no regard for their life or anyone else’s. They are living for the now, and believe that this time next year they’ll either be on top or gone – so what does it matter? Some people believe in life after death and that they’ll get their reward in the next life. Isn’t that what also motivates suicide bombers? The catch is you have to die to see if it’s true. A lot of people both young and old live in the reverse – they want their rewards now, on Earth, and are willing to give up their life or yours to get paid today.

When I was young I was terrified by two things polio and the Atomic Bomb. Today’s youth have to worry about terrorism, war, cancer, AIDs, crack, drive bys and a host of other things. Even the birds pose a threat to our existence! It’s no wonder many people are fatalistic. We as a society are also constantly looking for the instant fix and get-rich -quick proposition. Instant breakfast, instant coffee, fast food, instant tan, liposuction (why wait to lose weight?), instant mega super lotto millionaires. The movies, literature, and TV shows are full of rags to riches stories. There are reality shows such as “Who wants to be a millionaire?” and “American Idol”. How about “The Count of Monte Christo”? In this Alexander Dumas story the Count breaks out of prison, discovers a fabulous treasure and proceeds to knock off anyone that wronged him in the past. It’s no wonder that many people believe that with one stroke of good fortune or roll of the dice this time next year they’ll have it made. It’s the American Dream!

It would be nice if I could say that some great love, profound experience or moral realization changed my ways, and made me believe I would be around next year, but actually it was traffic tickets. Every year I would get dozens of tickets and throw them away. Shucks, I thought! As soon as my saxophone recording of “Hey Joe” hit the airwaves I’d make plenty of cash to take care of all my debts! My indifference also contributed to my phone, gas and electricity being frequently turned off, so parking tickets were the least thing on my list – until it came time to renew my driver’s license. Standing at the DMV counter, contemplating forking over the hard earned cash I had both worked and schemed for, for the third year in a row, I had a choice: lose my license and go to jail or pay for studio recording time. As I slowly gave the DMV all the money I had, it dawned on me – it’s always been about the little things – not just getting rich or die trying. The little things had always been holding me back and kicking my butt for years.

I realized that everyday it was the little things that could make or break me and that life was too short to wait a year! It’s not the bills you pay, it’s the one you don’t that gets you in trouble. It’s not about the big thing you dream of that never happened, but the little things you do that no one knows about.

There are many people who are not intimidated by either jail or death; they’re focused on chasing the American Dream. If they would believe that they’ll be here five years, ten years, even twenty years from now, and learn how to appreciate the little things, maybe they’d make it to next year.

Ant Gussie never had her 96th birthday party in New York City; she died six months later, still an eternal optimist. Her glass was never half-empty always half-full. Now that I’ve gotten older I never say this time next year. But I must admit that every now and than, I find myself thinking, this time next month…!

Winston Burton
Berkeley resident

Colorblind

COLORBLIND
By Winston Burton

I turned on the TV and there was a black boxer fighting a white boxer. I had the sound turned down and was blasting a Jimi Hendrix record while I was watching the fight. I had never seen or heard of either fighter before and didn’t know a thing about them.
I found myself enthusiastically rooting for the black boxer to win. The only thing that distinguished one fighter from the other was the color of his skin.
I realized this was proof. There could be no more doubt that I too was a racist. Will counseling or therapy help? Am I a bigot or just prejudice?
I thought back on my past and what led me to this fork in the road.

When I was born, in 1949, my mother, father, older brother, two uncles and their wives all lived in a three bedroom house in West Philadelphia with my grandmother and grandfather. My father worked at the shipyard, and six months after I was born he was able to buy a house only a few miles away from my grandmother. We were the third black family on an all white street of 70 row houses. For the first five years of my life I played primarily with white kids. By the time I was ten there was only one white kid left. His name was Francis.

Francis was Italian. He was neither big nor strong and one of the slowest runners on the block. The slowest was a black kid named Billy who always got caught while the rest of us got away; eventually Billy did a lot of time in jail. In a role reversal Francis was the only kid on the block without a dad. He lived with his mother and his grandfather, and in spite of the white-flight and block busting around us they never moved away. He attended an all boys Catholic high school, never had a cool nickname or wore a weird hat. Francis loved to play stick ball and dance. While most of us were listening to Smokey Robinson and the Temptations, Francis was into Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Maybe that’s why he had no rhythm! People in the neighborhood might mess with him because he was wrong, but we never let anyone mess with him because he was white. He was one of us!

We went to the movies every Saturday (it was only a nickel), and when we role played Cowboys and Indians afterwards most of us wanted to be the Indians. I must admit it was partially due to their skin pigment, but mostly because the Indians wore hipper and much more functional clothes. How are you going to sneak up on someone wearing pointed toe high heeled boots and a big white cowboy hat? Francis always wanted to be the Cowboy. He was usually out numbered ten to one, and the Cowboys routinely lost on our block, but that’s who he identified with! Francis was the first kid on our street to enlist into the military (most of us were drafted). Francis was also the first friend I knew that died in Viet Nam. He’s on The Wall. His last name is Daniels.

I realize now that Hollywood, and TV in its infancy, had a major impact on who my friends and I rooted for and our color consciousness. My favorite western movies were always Custer’s Last Stand and the Civil War. Although not that great in history class I knew that no matter how Hollywood would try to change the story and make a sympathetic ending, Custer and Johnny Reb would get their just desserts. Hollywood also put out a movie called Logan’s Run that was about the future, but had no people of color in it. Whose future was that? It surely wasn’t mine. Don’t get me started on the movie Zulu: a heroic tale of 120 British soldiers against 5,000 Zulus. Why don’t they make a movie about the preceding battle where the Zulus defeated 1,200 British troops or Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti? Tarzan used to be my favorite character. But as the years progressed many of his antics became disturbing as well!

On TV there was Rochester and Amos and Andy. And wow, how my mother would swoon when Nat King Cole sang his songs. Anytime a Negro would appear on TV we would break through on the telephone party-line and call all our friends and relatives.

Sports were a whole different story. Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain (who lived on the same street as me in Philadelphia), Bill Russell, and Joe Louis were heroes during the game, but zeroes when it came time to buy a home. The American Dream was not for them, and the American public was only colorblind when they were on the field. Once the game is over it was Jim Crow all over again! But I digress.

As I sat there rooting while the black and white boxers competed I realized that too much has happened, there’s too much history, and even with therapy I will probably never be colorblind. Maybe my kids will – who are part African, American Indian, Hispanic, Irish and Asian. But the images and experiences of the past are still strong, and stay with me today.

To be honest I don’t see anything wrong with cheering for people that look like you, speak like you, and share the same ancestry or culture. We should appreciate each others uniqueness and not be threatened by our own loyalties. Being colorblind may be an unrealistic mountain to climb, a bridge too far that doesn’t really matter. For most of us living in the Bay Area we should applaud our attempts at diversity and our desire to make it a reality. That’s why we live here, and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up! Sometimes when you try to achieve the impossible –like a colorblind society, there’s nothing possible to achieve!

Meanwhile there was a break in the fight. The two boxers went to their corners where they were splashed with water and attended to by their trainers. I TURNED UP THE SOUND. The white fighter’s handlers said, “Champ he can’t hit you, he can’t touch you. You’re winning every round.” The fighter responded through swollen lips and a half closed eye in a Brooklyn accent, “We’ll somebody betta watch dat refree!” The TV camera switched over to the black fighter’s corner where they were talking in a language that was neither English nor Spanish. My allegiance immediately switched to the white fighter, and all my anxieties vanished. I may not be colorblind, but I’m an All-American sports fan!

Winston Burton
Berkeley resident

Aloha Rachel Rupert

Aloha Rachel Rupert
By Winston Burton

So people make things happen. So people watch things happen. Some people say, “What happened!”

A ball rolls down a hill because it has no sides or angles and offers no resistance. People on the other hand have many sides and often have to choose sides. It makes us vulnerable! We can be hurt by words and comments as well as by sticks and stones. To me, this past year has been somewhat controversial for the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. Some have accused the Chamber of being mean spirited, divisive and even of engaging in questionable political activity. Perhaps they’ve made questionable decisions and bet on dead horses, but I don’t think that any of this has lead to Rachel Rupert’s decision to step down as executive director of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. Rachel has never been afraid or ashamed of expressing her opinions and names will never hurt her. As one of her staff recently said, “She can get down and dirty if she has to.” I’ve often heard that what’s good for business is good for Berkeley. And I always counter that what’s good for people (including the poor) is good for business and Berkeley as well. One is not exclusive of the other! Here I want to express what Rachel has done that was good for people in general, and me personally.

When I first started working for BOSS (homeless service provider) I had already successfully run employment and training programs for low income people in Philadelphia Pa, Davenport Iowa, Hayward and Oakland CA. When I started programs in Berkeley I was somewhat surprised at no matter the good I thought I was doing somewhat would object. If I found the solution to world hunger and clean air – someone else would say, that’s a bad idea and it could lead to overpopulation! When I started programs in Berkeley, at the end of 1988, I was trying to help homeless people find jobs and become self-sufficient, but unfortunately the businesses, merchants, homeless people and the community at large were on opposite sides, and rarely in agreement.

Rachel invited me to come to the table (chamber meetings) and present the opinions, needs and issues of poor and homeless people who were trying to become self-sufficient. We often talked, and though on many things we didn’t agree and were often on the opposite sides of the table, I could tell that she was not immune and had personal knowledge of poverty and people in crisis. Regardless of the topic and our many disagreements, we always treated each other with respect. (Look out Rodney King, maybe we can all get along!) She provided a forum where I could represent the issue of the poor to some of the wealthiest and most powerful business owners and landlords in Berkeley as and equal. Eventually she invited me to join the Board of Directors. Some people questioned, and still do, – my decision to join the board. They talked about me like a dog! But like Slick Willie Sutton responded when asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is”, and to me the chamber provided access to where the jobs were.

At one chamber meeting the subject of the Berkeley City Council’s decision to look into who had connection to slavery in America and did business in Berkeley led to several board members commenting that they thought it was amusing and a waste of time. As the great grandson of slaves I was offended. Not only was Rachel not a part of those who thought this topic humorous, she didn’t come to me later (like some folks did when no one was looking) and apologize, which irritated me even more. Actually she told me, “Winston speak your piece, handle your business.”

Rachel and I also talked about starting a program that could serve the needs of, the homeless, businesses and residents as well. She pointed out the streets were dirty in downtown, even though the city was doing it’s best to keep them clean, and the large amount of graffiti and tagging that was prevalent in the community at the time. She encouraged me to approach the merchants and the city to provide a service that would not only keep the streets clean, but would also remove or prevent graffiti and get homeless people employed. To this day over 400 people have benefited from the programs she helped me develop in 1992 – The Clean City Program. Most of the participants are now housed and the program continues to this day. (They wear blue vest)

She was a supporter of the MASC (Multi Agency Support Center), which has provided drop in services to over a 100 low income people a day (many of them chronically homeless) in downtown Berkeley, when it wasn’t politically correct. Rachel has hired BOSS participants, and is a regular Spiral Gardens patron, a nursery in South Berkeley (Sacramento and Oregon Streets) which promotes healthy food and eating, and she regularly donates food and clothing to help, seniors and poor people. In addition, as director of the chamber, she gave me many opportunities (at no or reduced cost) to present BOSS’s programs at business showcases held annually, which led to donations and volunteer support.

I don’t know who the next executive director of the chamber will be, but I hope that like Rachel, they will also invite community based organizations to the table and extend their hand when no one is looking.
Rachel has sides and will never smoothly roll down the hill. But who wants to, you’ll probably end up in the Bay! She has quietly, behind the scenes, help poor and low income people reach self-sufficiency. For me, she helped make things happen!
Aloha!

Winston Burton
Berkeley Chamber of Commerce Board Member
Homeless Advocate

Something To Look Forward To

Something To Look Forward To
By Winston Burton

When I went to the first meeting of the Alameda County Base Conversion Homeless Collaborative my wife was pregnant with our first child. I kissed her on the forehead as I was leaving and said, “Honey, I’ll be back in a couple of hours, this shouldn’t take long.” When I went to the last meeting of the Base Conversion Collaborative, where we finally received a settlement to help homeless providers, I had just finished dropping off our 10 year old son.

In November 2007, I completed a two year (twice a month) commitment on the DAPAC to help develop a plan for new projects and construction in downtown Berkeley. I served on the subcommittee to come up with a plan for Center Street that would include a new hotel, the UC Art Museum, and the possible day lighting of Strawberry Creek. I was a blank slate when the meetings started. Eventually I agreed with the other subcommittee members that the idea of day lighting the creek or some other water feature should be considered, but trained professionals needed to work out the details. After seeing the past two presentations by Walter Hood, hired by EcoCity Builders, I think that we’ve got the right person on the job.

Think outside the box? His first presentation was out of this world – literally. He presented a series of blown up photos from outer space first showing California, then the Bay Area, Berkeley, and finally focusing on the 2100 block of Center Street. He described the type of soil under the street, degree of pitch, water flow, ecosystems, native foliage, and how much you would actually have to detour the existing creek to run down Center Street. He showed examples of other successful plazas around the world that combined people, traffic, and buildings with a creek or water feature.

In the second presentation I went to, March 19th, Walter unveiled over 25 different options for Center Street. Some options did not require moving the creek but rather involved creating a water feature such as terraced fountains that would run the length of the street. I also liked the fact that his concepts extended across Shattuck and included the BART plaza. I think he addressed merchants’ concerns and traffic options, while offering designs that were appealing and aesthetically pleasing. Comments from those in attendance included words like “inspiring,” “innovative,” “creative,” and “unique.” Except for a few people who thought the designs did not accommodate a large enough public meeting space or a Jimi Hendrix statue (which in my opinion both should be located someplace else), there’s something here for everyone. What’s not to like?

One of my life-coping mechanisms, when I’m stressed out, experiencing back pain, exercising, or doing something else I don’t like is to think of something positive in the future. Since that last presentation my thoughts keep returning to Center Street. It’s destined to be the Crown Jewel in the new downtown plan. I’m optimistic that if Walter is allowed to proceed at the pace that this project is moving ahead, we will not need to wait for 10 years before something actually happens. I think my son, who is now 14, and I will both have something to look forward to much sooner rather than later.

History of Welfare Reform as discovered by Winston Burton and Miriam Berg

HISTORY OF WELFARE REFORM as discovered by Winston Burton and miriam berg

Once there was a kindly old elf named Santa Claus, who knew when everyone was sleeping, who knew when they were awake and who knew whether they’d been bad or good, and would leave them a gift if they’d been good, and nothing if they’d been bad. Thus he was the one who set up the first welfare performance-based contract.

This kindly old elf also noticed that the elves were happy-go-lucky; living off a few dewdrops and moonbeams hanging out contently with the fairies and unicorns; so he put them to work making toys, at the cold North Pole yet. So he was also the one who set up the first Workfirst program.

Snow White was a young woman who lived in a cabin with the seven dwarfs, taking, care of them and cooking their meals and cleaning their house; so she claimed them as, dependents on her application for welfare – Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). But when they set up a fraud unit they discovered they weren’t related and so she was the first to be cut off from TANF.

Sleeping Beauty was a beautiful princess on General Assistance (no income), who went to sleep for a hundred years after pricking her finger with a needle. So then the welfare office called her to come in and report, and they called and they called, and then they sent her an appointment letter, and when she didn’t report for her appointment, they cut her off welfare, and sent her the first sanction letter.

Old Mother Hubbard was a single woman who lived with her dog, and one day when she went to the cupboard to get her dog a bone there was none, because her food stamps were all gone. So when the authorities found out, they arrested her for cruelty to animals.

And then there was an old woman who lived in a shoe because she had so many children she didn’t know what to do; but when they found out about that, they prosecuted her for inadequate housing and child neglect. Then this old woman filed the first complaint against a husband for failure to pay child support. His name was Rumpelstiltskin, and instead of working he was spending all his time chasing around after another woman and trying to spin straw into gold.

Where’s Robin Hood?

Where’s Robin Hood?
By Winston Burton

For many years I thought that the Robin Hood Syndrome (taking from the rich to give to the poor) was a no brainer, so why make such a big deal about it? Why would any one want to steal from the poor and give to the rich? The wealthy have the resources and the money so who would waste their time robbing people who don’t have anything? Seems logical, right? Boy was I naïve! It seems that the practice of the rich taking from the poor has been the norm worldwide, throughout history, crossing through most cultures, governments, and religions. Robin Hood’s crime of taking from the rich was actually compounded because he came from the aristocracy and was breaking the good old boy tradition of getting all you can get. If people have nothing to take, put them in debt or bondage. That was the way then, and it’s still the way!

Meanwhile Prince John, I mean John Boehner and the republicans, are reluctant to raise taxes on the rich, but have chosen to eliminate programs that help our poor, our school children, and the disabled. I recently watched a documentary titled, “Untold Wealth: The Rise of the Super Rich”. It was striking to learn that the Super Rich are like their own species – more people are becoming wealthy faster than ever before. In 1985 there were 13 billionaires in the US, and today there are over 1,000 billionaires. Over 49,000 US households are worth between $50 million and $500 million; 125,000 households have a net worth exceeding $25 million to $50 million. The top 400 taxpayers in the US have an average income of $214 million. The breadth and depth of the staggering number of rich households has no precedent in the history of the United States. There has never been such an explosion of wealth, extravagance and conspicuous consumption against a back drop of unemployment and program cuts for the working class and the poor.

Now we see Politicos, especially right-wing conservatives, who have been constantly preaching their moral, religious superiority and authority, while they continue to be exposed for their corrupt and greedy behaviors. These people also refuse to take accountability and resign their positions of power. They believe that they are entitled to be our leaders while enriching themselves, all the while blaming the poor for their own poverty, and immigration for destroying the American Dream.

As I sit and watch those that have debate the economy, healthcare, taxes, the environment, and immigration, I can’t help but think where’s Robin Hood when you need him. I see an uneven and deliberate strategy to take as much from the have not’s as possible to save the resources and feed the greed of the wealthy. For some enough is never enough!

What’s On Your Mantel?

What’s On Your Mantel?

In the 1960’s, whenever I went to friends and relatives homes in West Philadelphia it seemed as if they all had the same two pictures on their mantel John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and this was before they were assassinated. These were all predominately black homes and I understood MLK, but it didn’t dawn on me till much later the significance of why so many people would display a picture of the President of the United States. I’ve never seen a picture of George W. Bush on anyone’s mantel!

I know everyone doesn’t have a mantel over a fireplace (ours was over a wall heater), but most people I know have a place where they display important, photos, religious icons and memorabilia. Some people have photos on the walls, stuff on book shelves and today’s most popular shrine – refrigerator magnets holding down pictures of their current loved ones. But there’s a big difference between being on the mantel instead of the fridge!

When I go to peoples homes I’m always drawn to check out their mantels and memorabilia. I think they display their stuff for themselves, but also for others to get a snapshot of who they are and what’s meaningful to them. I don’t think that people show pictures of their friends and families to show the world that they only know people that look like them, but mostly it’s true. Asians have Asian pictures; Black people have their pictures, Hispanics, White folks and so on.

Last week I watched Tiger Woods an Michelle Wie in a golf tournament. I was impressed at how throngs of mostly white people clapped and cheered their every move. I thought to myself we’ve finally turned the corner, – a colorblind society – but actually we’re probably just coming to the intersection! I wondered how many of them have Tiger or Michelle Wie on their mantel!
As much as we strive for an inclusive society most of our mantels are segregated.

Times have changed, and instead of picture of presidents on people’s mantel I’ve seen concert tickets, empty beer cans from important events, and lots of sea shells. In Berkeley I do see pictures of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan prayer cloths, and Pace Bene flags, but rarely an American flag. I must admit that the only thing on my mantel, that’s not family, is a Jimi Hendrix action figure. Our mantels kind of represent our individual voting booth, in the privacy of our homes, and what we are most willing to share with others that is important to us. I’m still struggling with what or who I can put on my mantel to show others that I’m with it! Hillary Clinton? Barack Obama?

I realize now the significance of those two pictures on everyone’s mantel – MLK and JKF.
MLK represented the future: our buy-in and belief in the dream of America that he so eloquently described. JFK represented the present at that time: our trust that that the American system of laws and justice finally was ours too, and he would make sure we got a fair break. Isn’t it ironic that they both got shot in this America!

I’ve never seen a picture of George W. Bush or Al Sharpton on anyone’s mantel. What’s that got to say about our present and our future!

I must admit that in the recent election I had Tom Bates, Kriss Worthington, and Linda Maio signs on my lawn. But could any of them make my mantel? Linda send me a picture!

What’s on your mantel?

Winston Burton
Berkeley resident

The Secret Life

THE SECRET OF LIFE
By Winston Burton

It was a hot summer’s day in Philadelphia, 100 degrees in the street with 98 percent humidity. I came home with chocolate syrup and strawberries all over my white uniform after another stressful day of driving a Mr. Softee’s ice cream truck in the hood. My father looked at me and said, “Son, how’d it go today.” I told him, “I spent half the day arguing with people who were trying to cheat me over a twenty–five cent ice cream cone and the rest trying to stop them from stealing the whole truck! In a way I can’t blame them we were all hot and miserable. I think I’m going to quit.” My father looked at me and said, “Son, I understand – you don’t know the secret of life! “What’s that I said”, excitedly. He said, “Make money and prosper doing what you like and pay others to do the things you don’t.” “What’s so secret about that?” I responded. “Most people I know,” he answered “make their living continuing to doing things that they did before, went to school for or pays them the most money, but it’s rarely what they love. They end up marking time until they get to retirement to do what they truly want. The secret is don’t wait! How many people went to school to learn what they thought was an exciting profession, but now find themselves spending most of their time in a cubicle banging away on a computer keyboard. Or how many people do you know who spend their money on music, art and being out in nature but make their living doing mundane things that have nothing to do with what they love?” “You’ve got to pay your bills,” I said. “Yes, yes,” he responded. “But that’s the secret of life! You can have it both ways. If you do what you like you’ll do it often and enjoy doing it. If you do something often you can get good at it and eventually you’ll get paid. The responsibility of paying your bills is always there, but why not enjoy yourself? After all this is the only life you have.”

My father’s conversation floated around in the back of my brain for years. I became a career counselor for a jobs program and one day it all came into view. I realized that yes, there are bills and the fear of failure, but the biggest obstacle was that most of the people I was counseling, never knew what they really liked to do. They were always driven by the three forces that my father had described years before: what they currently did for a living or what they had experience in, and the need for money. So I developed an exercise to help people discover what they like.

I asked the class, “How may of you have ever spent 8 full hours just thinking about what you like (out of 25 people one hand went up). I want you to spend the next three hours making three list, no matter how long, wishful, trivial or mundane, of what you like, what you don’t like, and what you did, do or know how to do for a living. We’ll take an hour for lunch where you can share what you wrote with each other if you choose to do so. After lunch I want you to draw lines connecting what you like, what you don’t and what you did or do for a living, and we’ll discuss the results” It was amazing how few people were really connected with what they like. Most people in every class had more lines connecting what they did to what they didn’t like, than to what they liked and wanted to do. The next step was obvious. I told them, “Now that you’re closer to knowing what you like you need to plan your work and work your plan. If you know what you like to do and you’re not doing it find some place to volunteer – someone will be glad to have you and you’ll get better. If you are doing what you like but it can’t support you – go to school, improve yourself. If you’re doing what you don’t like and it doesn’t pay well – find another job quick!

Some of the people I counseled did go on to have successful careers and told me they enjoyed their work and that my counseling exercise had helped. Any time I’d run into a past student I would always ask, “Are you doing what you love?” Many said yes. I realized that the secret of life is about the journey not just the destination. For myself, I realized I enjoyed a life style of just walking and talking, and recently I discovered writing an occasional story. Are you doing what you love??

Winston Burton
Former Career Counselor