In the spring of 1981, my freshman year of college had left me feeling useless. I had gone to college without a clear sense of what I wanted to study, or how I could meet my father’s expectations of turning myself into someone who would give back to the world. My dad had pushed me all my life to focus on others. When I was little, his dream for me had been that I become a doctor. High school had shown that I had no talent for science and mathematics, but that I had a facility with words.
My younger brother was born with a problem with his left eye that needed surgical correction. A few months after he was born, my parents and I sat in an exam room while the specialist examined my brother. The doctor stopped what he was doing to offer my dad some unsolicited advice: He pointed at three-year-old me and told my dad that someone should start working with me immediately or I would lose the gifted intelligence the doctor had picked up on while I talked to my parents.
Thus began our nightly ritual. Every night after dinner, my dad would sit with me and we would do lessons. He taught me to read, and to do simple math, to tell time, and basic science. But my dad also used these lessons to impart moments of ethics and philosophy. One night, he filled a clear plastic tumbler halfway with water. He asked me to describe the glass to him: Was it half-full or half-empty? My decision that it was half-full delighted my dad. It meant that I was an optimist, and that I saw the good side of life. He said it also meant I understood that people were basically good. He used the example of the glass of water to begin a series of lessons about human behavior. This was the 1960s, and my father emphasized to three-year-old me that regardless of the color of our skin or whether we were girls or boys, we were all the same, all humans who deserved to be treated equally.
My dad’s father had been part of some famous trade union marches in England, and he took enormous pride in the adversarial relationships between those union members and the police. He told me more than once the stories about my grandfather being beaten for standing up for his rights. My father, on the other hand, followed the path of nonviolence. He was trying to change the way that management treated labor through the work of the management consulting firm he co-owned with his equally idealistic partner. They both believed that they could revolutionize American manufacturing, and I had spent many nights listening to my father’s dreams for change.
My dad’s hero was Mohandas Gandhi, and by the time I was five, I knew the entire story of the Mahatma’s nonviolent resistance against the British Empire. My dad’s family had all worked in the factories of Manchester, many in the cotton mills. My dad told me the story of how how Gandhi came to Manchester and convinced the workers of the cotton industries not to cooperate with the British government’s oppression of the Indians.
Sometimes, I used to wonder if I didn’t ever lead a movement, or change the world in some significant way, would my dad ever be proud of me? I knew he loved me. He told me that every day. But he didn’t believe in praise. He said that praise went to your head, and my brothers and I were just supposed to take satisfaction from doing our best without expecting to get recognized for it. Sometimes, I felt as if I were starving for a sign that my dad was happy with me.
In my freshman year of college, I felt restless. I couldn’t make the connection between the classes I was taking and how I could effect change. During the third quarter of that year, I took a course on South African history. It was taught by an apartheid apologist, and his explanations for why the system of oppression in South Africa was actually the best solution set me up to argue with him during nearly every class time. He gave me consistently bad grades on my papers, and as the quarter progressed, I felt more frustrated and less useful. When school let out for summer break, I was almost certain that I wouldn’t be going back to college in the fall.
Mother Jones carried ads in its back pages that promised young people could make a difference by getting involved in “community organizing.” I didn’t really know what it was, or what it entailed, but in August 1981, faced with the choice of packing up to go back to my sophomore year of college or doing “something” to scratch at the itchy sense that I should be making a contribution to the greater good, I sent off a letter of intent to the address listed in the back of the magazine. I thought of my decision as having joined a kind of domestic Peace Corps, and now I needed to wait and see which community they had decided I was most needed to serve in.
I arrived in Memphis on a humid pink evening in September. The evening air there was warmer and more dank than the day I had left behind in Seattle, and that change in climate set off the electric hum of anxiety that would buzz under my skin the entire time I lived there. The organization was paying me a paltry $350 per month, but the organizers, a married couple, Terry and Bill, both uber-blonde, and who appeared to be in their mid-twenties, had arranged housing with Miss Louise, an elderly white woman who had agreed to rent me a small bedroom in her rattling old antebellum house for seventy dollars per month. I already felt isolated.
My understanding of what I was doing went something like this: I would help people to gather with their neighbors to understand what the problems in their communities were. Then, instead of urging people to write to their elected officials or go through traditional power channels, I would instead encourage them to participate in “direct action.” Direct action didn’t mean violence, but it meant something other than expecting the electoral system—the same one that had just put Ronald Reagan in power—to do something about the problems of everyday life for the poor.
Training comprised being accompanied on my first day by Bill, who showed me which bus to catch and then took me to two separate sections of Memphis, where he took me to several members’ houses and had me practice the little speech he had taught me in front of knowledgeable people who were able to offer me “helpful tips” for making my talk stronger.
Every day after that, except for Sundays, I spent hours walking the streets, most of which had cracked and broken sidewalks; sometimes the roads themselves were simply dirt. I knocked on the door of shotgun shacks, the names of which I thought, at the time, had something to do with firing guns, but which turns out to be a bastardization of the West African word shogon . The houses were skinny. Some of them were covered with tarpaper, some with the type of soft asphalt tiles that I remembered from my childhood in Chicago; some houses, the nicer ones, were brick. All of them had iron bars on the windows to repel thieves.
“Hello,” I would say. “My name is Lorraine, and I’m with ________; we’re a community-organizing group. I wonder if you have a couple of minutes to talk to me about the neighborhood and perhaps some things that the city could do to improve life here in your neighborhood.”
Almost always, I was asked to come in. If the people were home, the door would be answered by an older black woman, sometimes an older black man, and toddlers and other pre-school aged kids would be playing in the house. A lot of grandchildren, and I discovered, even great-grandchildren, were babysat during the workday so that their parents could go to their jobs. Inside the houses, I started to notice the same things over and over again. On the walls hung paintings or photographs—some kind of visual representation of JFK, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Sometimes, the photos were separate; sometimes the three men were painted together. Sometimes, a light had been set up that illuminated the picture. And sometimes there were candles as if a shrine had been established. Jesus would be there, too. Not the suffering Christ on the cross, the fetishistic image of the man in agony, but rather an image of Jesus the man—bearded, robed, with that look of agape about him—the one who had told others to suffer the little children, the kind loving Jesus who was a friend to the poor. In some houses, he was the white Jesus with the long flowing brown hair, and in other houses, he was a darker-skinned Jesus. Not as dark as MLK, but not as pale milk-skinned as RFK, either.
I would be offered something to drink: lemonade or iced tea—and something to eat, which was usually pie. I always accepted. I was always hungry. I was teaching myself to live on candy bars for lunch—I couldn’t afford to buy a fast food lunch and I just wasn’t organized enough to make myself lunch before I left Miss Louise’s in the morning. Besides, I always felt that it would be rude of me to say no.
I had moved to Memphis with little training and little thought other than that I wanted to make a difference, but now that I was here, what I felt was the cold sick in my stomach that told me that I had made a dreadful mistake. I didn’t feel good about the work that I was doing. It didn’t feel right. Not because I was going into people’s houses and having conversations with them about their lives—that part felt right. It was the other stuff that my “handlers” asked me to do.
The greatest part of my “training” was about how to ask for money. I was supposed to do it once I was in someone’s house. After we had talked about the lack of police patrols in the neighborhood, the lack of streetlights, the infrequency of trash pickups, the state of the sidewalks and streets, I was supposed to explain the concept of ownership—and ownership meant that they needed to give me annual “dues” in order to belong. Here, I consistently failed. I have never been able to “close” a deal; I couldn’t ask people who had invited me into their homes for money. So, I would inform them that there were annual dues, and then invite them to put down a deposit of a dollar or two to hold their place. But when I would return to headquarters after a ten-hour day, my bosses would be exasperated with how little money I collected.
I never understood why they weren’t happy that I had gotten so many more families to join our group. That was the point, wasn’t it? To increase our numbers? No. Apparently it wasn’t. Because each night, I was subjected to the same lecture: My monthly dues goal sheet would be taken off the bulletin board where it was thumbtacked. I was responsible for bringing in at least enough money each month to cover my monthly salary—more. My sign-up numbers were great, but my money pledges showed that I didn’t have real commitment to the organization. Because if I really believed in what we were doing, it would be easy for me to ask poor people for money.
One gray December afternoon, I stepped down from the bus and began to trudge down the street where I had left off the night before. Ahead of me on my left, an old green sedan’s motor sent plumes of black smoke into the skin-tightening air. Inside, a blond man with curly hair sat with a map spread out over his steering wheel.
“Excuse me, Miss,” he said. “Could you help me?” I approached the car. He pulled the map away to reveal his penis, which he pulled on with his free hand.
My head snapped back and I turned around, ran back toward the main road where the bus had dropped me off. In the bodega, I called my dad collect at work, explaining to the switchboard operator that it was an emergency.
I didn’t tell my dad that I had been flashed three times before in my life. Instead, I sobbed out of fear and frustration. I told my dad that I had been terrified that the guy might have pulled me into his car, even though as I was telling my dad this I knew it had been unlikely to happen. I knew I was embellishing the story, but I knew that life had presented me with an out of this situation. I didn’t want to admit to him that I just wasn’t noble enough to do this job, that I couldn’t handle the constant working: no money, no food, no friends. I knew that if my dad didn’t think I was safe, he would tell me to come home. But I couldn’t ask him to rescue me—I couldn’t stand the idea that he would be disappointed in me for failing.
Through my tears, I heard his rage. Not at me. At the man who had wanted to hurt me.
“Lorraine. Love. Your mum and I aren’t sleeping at night,” he said. “We worry about you. Your mum cries at night worrying that you’re not safe. I daren’t tell her about this. Promise me you won’t tell her.”
I agreed. I always agreed.
“But Lorraine. I’m wiring you some money. It’s time for you to come home.”
When I had been three and four, my dad and I had been able to talk about anything. But at eighteen, by the time I had spent seventy hours on a Greyhound, staring at America through the double-glass window, we had nothing to say to each other. I never admitted that I had chosen to make more of the flashing incident in order to manipulate him into bringing me home; my father never acknowledged that raising me with his expectations was an unbearable burden.