Who Am I?

First born Jewish son after the Holocaust, that story.

First generation American, that story too.

From city to suburbs, Brooklyn to Long Island, near poor to near rich, then rocketing downward mobility. From organized labor (sewing trades on mother's side, restaurant trade on father's), to teacher (mom) and lawyer (dad), to marginalized labor again: part-time teacher until age 40 (no benefits, no retirement, no money), then full-time, tenured teacher, and marginalized writer of fiction.

Union leader, officer, worker, activist in American Federation of Teachers.

Civil Rights: marched, picketed, arrested, spoke-out; present at the 'I Have a Dream' speech and the Apollo Theater.

Anti-Vietnam War: marched, picketed, arrested, resisted, screamed-out; present at numerous marches on Washington; threw garbage can through a window at the State Department, proving that even then I understood and appreciated the power of imagery and metaphor.

Anti-draft and anti-draft counseling.

Taught history and political science at black university in North Carolina for two years.

Vista Volunteer in Washington, D.C., where I was paid by the Office of Economic Opportunity to organize tenants against the Federal Housing Authority, who threatened to beat me up.

Vista Volunteer in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I was paid to teach poor people how to save and spend their money. Organized them instead in an inter-racial tenants union so they could save more money, which they then used to buy guns to protect themselves from each other.

Freedom of Information Act, 25 page FBI file. They seem to have spent most of their time trying to figure out if I was really married. I was-but they could never seem to verify it. My wife, however, had no trouble either verifying it or dissolving it-but she was always better and smarter and more vigilant than they.

Left New York in 1962 to go to school in Madison, Wisconsin. Left Madison in 1968 with two degrees, a teaching credential, a wife, and an unplanned honeymoon detention in Chicago jail during the Democratic National Convention. Spent first night at Lincoln Park with Rubin, Hoffman, piglet, and Yippies. Spent the second night in jail. The third night I was in George McGovern's suite in the Sheraton Blackstone watching it on TV, all of which helped to contribute to a profound sense of the absurd.

Went to Greensboro, North Carolina from 1968-70. I was visited by the FBI. The school was visited by the KKK and the National Guard. One student killed.

Came to Berkeley, California in 1970-right after People's Park and Kent State. Still married, unemployed, living on welfare, food stamps, accepted at law school, decided not to go, and began working on a reader of Social Conflict Theory as well as a political science teacher's manual and two political science textbooks. Came face to face with feminism and lost. Happy I can still walk and have kids.

Started teaching history and political science at Merritt College in Oakland-birthplace of the Black Panther Party and Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Did that until 1977-8 when I got a National Endowment for the Humanties grant to start an oral history project, a la Studs Terkel, in Oakland through Merritt College, which got me involved in working with older people, which led to my next job and got me interested in stories and story telling.

Went to Vista College in Berkeley and set up what at the time was one of the largest and most comprehensive older adult education programs in the nation. Had over 150 classes in five towns, over 100 teachers, and a budget of half million dollars-and over 5,000 students. Taught well elderly, frail elderly, people who were working with elderly and people who wanted to work with elderly. Program was dismantled thanks to our Republican friends in Sacramento, who later went to Washington and did to the country what they'd already done to the State.

I moved on to other things: labor union work for teachers and returned to school in English and creative writing. What I had finally learned was the line between truth and fiction is porous. I realized that fact and data mean nothing until they are interpreted and once they are interpreted they are no longer fact and data-but fiction. So I asked myself, why write lies that are pretending to be truths when I can discover truths by making up lies? The answer led me to fiction. That and working with old folks-hearing their stories and learning that all stories are unique and the same. Very humiliating and freeing to realize everything has already happened to someone somewhere and everything is also brand new.

About stories: once when I was very young my grandfather gave me a dollar and told me to go to the store and buy him a packet of cigarettes. I bought a dollar's worth of candy instead and came back and told him. He spanked me and sent me to my room. Clearly, it would have gone better had I a story to tell.

Years later when I got expelled from high school when a teacher caught me doing something I shouldn't have been doing and heard me say, "You fuck," I knew I'd better come up with a tale. So I told my mother I said, "What luck." She, mother of first-born Jewish son after the holocaust, believed me, defended me, was shocked when I finally confessed. So I learned another lesson, a lesson repeated again and again after the U-2, Vietnam, Watergate, the Contras, Irangate, Monica Lewinsky, and WMD: a story that's true, that has real truth in it, is better than one that is false.

So I began writing fictions and creating lies to discover my truths. Hence, a collection of stories, I Saw a Man Hit His Wife.

And then I went to France, the old world, where everything is new to me, including me. So I got married again and wrote, I'll Never Be French.

And here I am.

 

   

Drawings by Kim Thoman
Website designed by Bruce Jacobs