Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Above This Wall: An Excerpt

Here is an excerpt from Above This Wall: The Life and Times of a VISTA Volunteer c2008
I’ve been writing this book for the past few months. Hopefully a first draft will be completed in the next few months.

Rabbit’s Hutch

“What can I bring?”
“Just yourself, and make sure your house mates come with you, we need as many VISTAs from inner city Houston as we can get.”
Nancy Hite was adamant about having a good turnout from the Third, Fifth, and Sixth wards. As the force behind this Fourth Ward open house, Nancy wanted as much support as she could muster. Her little strip of downtown poverty was all set for an influx of direct action. Living in this community composed mostly of decaying shotgun shacks and an occasional church or street corner market, she had a good deal invested in its makeover.
My two housemates and I were first year VISTAs. Nancy was in her second year, having endured the political and emotional tornado that was 1968 deep down in the alley of the Fourth Ward. She was tough as scrap iron, having survived a physical assault, numerous verbal threats, and the monthly challenge of making ends meet on a VISTA Volunteer’s scant salary. We needed to be there for Nancy. Hopefully she would help our fledging efforts further on down the road. That was the VISTA way.
By the time David, Larry, and I arrived, the open house was going strong. The little Community Center was scrubbed and polished. Proud seven and eight year olds stood beside the reading books while their prouder parents sat at card tables collecting signatures: promises to return and contribute something. They needed everything. Books and school supplies, of course, but any working fan, ice trays, educational games; chairs would be nice too. Aside from tutoring, the refurbished center would be used for community meetings, receptions, recitals and the like. Having this facility in the heart of the community would change lives. No transportation needed.
“You don’t have to bring food because the locals will provide that,” she reminded us. “We need you to help organize childcare, talk with or assist the elderly so they can eat and visit with folks, and just be a presence.” Our orders were clear. Nancy urged us to talk up our own projects because that kind of networking might uncover a helpful friend or relative in our neck of the woods.
The day went well. After all organized activities were completed, everyone went to Nancy’s place where a buffet occupied every inch of her small front porch. With help from her neighbors, about 300 people were able to eat, schmooze, and extend the goodwill into the late afternoon and early evening. With the Orange Crush sky as a backdrop, musicians emerged. The Blues and the Sixth Ward go together like Pearl beer and barbeque. With most everyone filled with short ribs, chicken, and fish, plenty of lemonade and cole slaw, the only thing left to do was enjoy the moment. Kids shot marbles, jumped double Dutch, or tossed horseshoes. Generations swapped stories, talked politics or just listened to bluesy riffs sent adrift by small homemade amplifiers. Yet, in my mind, something was missing. I found a local VISTA and popped the question. “Do you know where we can get a nice watermelon around here?”
At this point, I must interject that I am a connoisseur of watermelon. I unabashedly adore it and I refuse to buy in to all the taboos and caveats about what I consider nectar of the gods. I know, too, about the relationship between racism and watermelon. Sometimes, however, as writer Ralph Ellison noted, in this short life it becomes necessary to own one’s passions. This is one of those times. I wanted nothing more than to contribute to one of the best meals I had ever eaten. Thus began my search for the perfect watermelon.
A colleague and I joined one of the residents and motored over to a nearby grocery store. Pathetic. They had nothing cold; what they did have looked anemic.
“Any other ideas?” I disappointedly asked. “What about that guy that sometimes has a truckload he sells from the vacant lot over near the freeway,” my fellow Vista asked. Strike two. Nowhere in sight. At least we tried; I consoled myself. The horizon flamed burgundy now and the Gulf Oil sign on the Houston skyline had replaced any trace of the sun when the only true Texan in the car suddenly said, “There is one other place we might try, you guys are up for it?” It’ll take about 30 minutes to go there and back, it’s the best I can do.” For a watermelon, the right watermelon, I ‘d consider the ends of the earth.
After a maze of turns and twists, we rolled down a dirt road with no dwelling in sight. Through the last of a half dozen dust clouds, I thought I saw an oasis.
“That’s where Rabbit live,” our guide said. We parked under an arching shade tree that came to resemble the inhabitant of the sheet metal and clapboard house standing nearby. Out of this tumbleweed with windows walked Rabbit. He resembled the male equivalent of Miss Jane Pittman. Introductions followed and he asked me what I was looking for. Somehow a watermelon, or even a big watermelon seemed so inept. I felt like I was standing before the god of all watermelon. “Take a look over here, “ he motioned. We followed Rabbit into a shed that contained a refrigerator. Inside, on every shelf rested watermelons. Some Charleston Grays, a few cut in half, others still covered with a smear of mud. “This what you lookin” for?” our guru said. I nodded, but must have looked puzzled, because he shot back, “How many people you fixin’ to feed?”
I didn’t want to say a few hundred, so I just mumbled something like “as many as I can.” In other words, I want the biggest watermelon you have. Rabbit got the message. “Follow me boys.” We went down a shaky staircase to another room where an old freezer stood. It was so dented and dusty I didn’t think it was working. About the size of a small bathtub, the freezer was plugged in, humming faintly, and wired shut with a knotted old coat hanger.
We offered to help, but Rabbit would have none of it. I watched him take a rusty pair of pliers and painstakingly free the latch. Inside the freezer sat the largest watermelon I have ever seen; at least in person. Deep green and about the size of a standard recycling tub, this was one watermelon for the ages. The old timer estimated the weight near 50 pounds. I was not going to do better; within minutes it was mine. I can’t recall the price, but I know it couldn’t have been more than a few dollars. Back then; the price of watermelon ranged between 5-10 cents a pound. It was never about money.
When we returned to what had now become a block party, we took the ice-cold trophy to Nancy’s house. It took two of us to carry it comfortably. Still reeling from the sheer beauty of this melon, I stood by as some of the more skillful residents of the Sixth Ward did the cutting. Anyone within a mile of that melon who had the taste for some was satiated. Yes, it was cold, sweet, refreshing and visually stunning. With the clean-up organized and in effect, many of the neighborhood kids and I spent the waning minutes of twilight competing in a watermelon seed spitting contest. I was much too full to be a serious contender for the title.
That watermelon, like the Sixth Ward community center brought a lot of folks together that night. Like my experience as a VISTA it forced me to go beyond the easily obtainable and look into the heart of a culture. Both leave an unforgettably sweet taste.

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