Valerie Pollak climbed up San Francisco City Hall’s broad steps to the Supervisors’ Chambers. Down below her, the guards and clerks were working at their desks. She had passed by Morrie, who had inspected her briefcase and her bag, pretty messy with lots of pennies, containing her scribbled notebook. As the City Hall’s dome rose above her, it was exciting to have space open over and around her. On the second floor, marbled hallways circled out. Within the building, there were spirals within spirals like a nautilus shell. She had been here many times now, and did not get confused and lost as she had on her first visits to the Supervisors’ hearings.
This was Valerie’s thirtieth year of living in San Francisco. She was fifty-one, thin, her hair still long and dark brown. She could be labeled a political junky, a gadfly, an activist. She was mostly a freelancer and did not have a job with an organization, as many of the people arriving for today’s Living Wage hearings did. She wrote poetry and edited a small political newsletter whose concerns centered on poverty and labor issues. She felt slightly insecure in the company of the titled heads of organizations who trekked to these meetings. Some weeks, she came to more than one meeting. If she dressed a little better, she could be mistaken for working in a department. Being on the fringes, though, gave her time to sip tea in the Light Court café. But she went to City Hall because she was looking for stories to write about, and for people to interview. She also believed in the causes. She passed by a woman guard, through the heavy doors, into the chamber. Above and around her were ornate gilded Florentine walls and ceilings. The large padded seats of the supervisors were in front of her.
The assembled people were sitting on the long leather benches of the chamber. They were dressed in jeans, suits, tennis shoes, designer ties, dresses, and T-shirts. There were poor people, and clergy to help them, and well-off business owners in opposition. Several restaurant owners congregated in a little clump. One fingered a pack of cigarettes, looking forward to her lunchtime smoke.
Valerie had arrived a little early so she could get a seat, or even get into the room. Dressed in her red sweater and blue skirt, she settled her maroon briefcase on the floor, the case brushing the heels of Sister Jonnie who sat to Valerie’s left. Sister Jonnie was a small woman with curly graying hair who wore a gray smock dress. Sister Jonnie was known for scaling walls during actions for homeless people.
Jonnie and Valerie sat quietly watching as several supervisors entered from a door behind their semi-circle of seats. Each one represented a different district.
“I’ve seen you at other meetings. Are you here for Living Wage?” Sister Jonnie said.
“Yes, I am.”
“The supervisors have been stalling for months.”
“It’s still possible for the supervisors to pass this, isn’t it?” said Valerie.
“It is, but if they don’t pass the ordinance, it will have to go on the ballot, which means going on the street and gathering signatures. But today, testimonies will still be given.”
The Living Wage was a hot new topic. It had passed in 25 other cities, giving to workers with city contracts a higher-than-minimum wage, with an hourly salary that they could live on. Some of these people were home care workers, and screeners at the airport, and immigrants like Marta, who shyly sat behind Jonnie and Valerie. Marta’s five-year old daughter held on to her hand. Marta had taken off two hours from one job to say what her life was like with two jobs and living with four other people in a room and a half. San Francisco city government, though supposedly progressive, had been buckling in to business interests lately. More supervisors filed in. They were Marta’s hope for a better life, but they seemed to be staring out impassively. Valerie turned around to see two tall men from management groups in almost identical black suits leaning against one of the chamber’s walls. One of them had lunch with the mayor every Wednesday.
Now, the Supe’s agenda was winding down to Number 16, the Minimum Compensation Ordinance, generally known as the Living Wage Law, but at the moment, they were still on 15, discussing a street paving of a picturesque country-ish alley, because the owner of a newly-built house wanted a road for his Sports Utility Vehicle.
“That nice little alley is in my neighborhood,” Valerie said.
“Whereabouts?” said Sister Jonnie, her attention having lapsed from the street paving, Number Fifteen, and one of the city’s small communities with neighbors trying to keep a sweet patch of earth in the midst of urban life.
“Evans Avenue,” Valerie said, as the defenders of Poppy Alley lined up.
“Evans? Why is that so familiar? Oh yes, there was a famous woman organizer who lived on Evans. If she’s still around, she would be very old now. Older than me,” said Sister Jonnie smiling.
This piqued Valerie’s interest. It could be possible to have an interview.
“Do you know her?” Valerie asked.
“Years ago, she signed one of my petitions, and she came to a Bloody Thursday Celebration for the 1934 San Francisco General Strike. People I met through the San Francisco Labor Council knew her. They said, “Lorraine McDougall Smith! Where has she been hiding?” She looked nervous. Then, she sent over a box of food to St. Anthony’s. That was many years ago. It might have been seven or eight years ago.”
“I’ve heard about a famous woman who lives on the street, but I never knew her name before. One of my neighbors said something, but he didn’t know who it was. What did she do?”
“She was an organizer who worked with farm workers, and longshoremen, and the unemployed councils during the Depression.”
Valerie wrote this all down quickly. This information was something Valerie had wanted to learn about for a long time but had been stymied. She was always looking for good people to interview and she liked the neighborhood angle. Valerie’s thoughts turned to her street. She had seen someone who could be the rumored woman such as Sister Jonnie had described. There was an elderly woman who appeared about once a week from a path alongside her house. The house’s garden was bordered by large trees. She usually pulled up a few recalcitrant weeds or fetched her newspaper, then quickly disappeared down the pathway. Other times, Valerie had seen her snipping a few wayward branches, often with her back turned, and Valerie had never said hello.
Valerie, now squeezed in on the right at her seat as the chamber had begun to be more and more filled up, thought to herself, “I think it is my own political yearnings that make me curious about this woman. I like the idea of us two politicos on the same street who are both concerned for people. Though is she still an activist at her age? And would I be when I grow older?”
As she thought about this older woman, Valerie also carried a letter tucked in her maroon briefcase from a woman of a younger generation than she was. Somehow, thinking about Lorraine had reminded Valerie to write Andy. Andy had been a college student, then had been homeless, living in the Tenderloin for six months. That was where she picked up Valerie’s newsletter. She’d found it in a Tenderloin District coffee house where students from a nearby art school gathered. The art students dressed in outlandish pink jackets and feathered hats. They were young and talented and could afford a costly art college in the middle of an urban skid row. “I wish it could be me,” thought Andy, but she liked huddling inside their favorite café. The owner, a Palestinian from Ramallah, let her linger on rainy days and draw cartoons. Andy wrote down Valerie’s address because she liked that the editor was a woman and thought that maybe she could apply for a job, or an internship, or just talk to Valerie Pollak.
“I was a college student in the Midwest,” Andy’s letter said, “but my dad got sick and lost his job at an auto plant before his pension would pay enough to live on, and his disability was going to end. I have three brothers that my family needs to take care of. I was on a scholarship at Marquette, but I still couldn’t make it. I thought I’d go to California where I could live like a butterfly, but the rents cost so much more than I thought. I ended up in the Tenderloin, the toughest part of San Francisco. My odd jobs kept getting odder. For six months, I lived on the street. Now, I’ve been petitioning for a dollar a signature, and I’m living in a Y on the edge of the Tenderloin. I see a lot of injustice in the Tenderloin. I write poetry and draw cartoons. Do you need anyone to work on your newsletter?”
“Do young lives have to be so rude and quick, so sad, and terrifying?” thought Valerie. Valerie had been young and new to the City once. She’d moved from New York to room with a friend. Now, she and her husband Bernard, a city social worker, didn’t have any children. She’d never had an intern. It would be nice to be around a young person. “I’m a marginal person,” Valerie thought. She needed people in her life to simply appear out of the blue. “Okay, if Andy wants to work with the newsletter,” she thought, sliding the letter back in the briefcase.
In the chamber, in front of the supervisors, a long row of people lined up to speak.
Valerie pulled out her notepad, and flipped through it for a clean page to jot down quotes. “The Beast,” a man in a wild fringe jacket, circa 1969, shouted at the microphone, jumping up and down, “We are in the Beast.”
Valerie knew that there were a few strange people who always came to these meetings. “The Beast” either transfixed you with his shouting or you patiently waited for his two minutes to end, when he would have to give up the mike.
Valerie took this opportunity to study the social structure of the Living Wage hierarchy who had found their way downtown at two on a Tuesday afternoon. There was Clark and Angela from the Organizing Committee congregated in the back of the room, squeezed between the wall, and the last seats. Harry sat at a table outside the room, handing out flyers. Harry was a small businessman, but he agreed with the Living Wage campaign.
Members of the Living Wage Steering Committee were in the room/ The Living Wage campaign had a plethora of committees. The Steering Committee was amassed of “major players” from the City’s labor and welfare rights organizations, seniors and church groups, some groups that got along with each other, and some that did not. Members of the committee prowled the room like wolves. Patrick Cleary and Sally Speigel, who represented thousands of hotel and healthcare workers, roamed down separate aisles shaking hands and commandeering union leaders. The Organizing Committee members were part of a large coalition. It had volunteers who went on actions, did mailings, and talked to people. They were the troops or grunts. And on hearing days like this, they could get people to pack a room from the hundred groups that had signed on as Living Wage endorsers. Valerie had been going to the Organizing Committee meetings since January when she’d learned that many people working on city contracts only made $5.15 an hour.
Marta, a young mother, now stepped up to the microphone. Public testimony on the Living Wage Ordinance had begun.
“I’m working two jobs, and I can hardly pay my rent,” she said standing with her child.
The bell rang, and a big restaurant owner on the city-owned Port strode up in a gray suit.
“Is it fair that I pay waiters more when the restaurants across the street don’t? You’re just not figuring that waiters get tips,” he said.
At the end of a long line of speakers from in-home care service workers, city community shelter workers, workers at concessions on airport property, and screeners at the airport, Rebecca Goldman, the most conservative of the supervisors, proposed a study to figure the costs. The two most liberal supervisors wanted the Living Wage now, but the others sat impassively by.
“This will postpone the Living Wage by three months, at least,”` Angela whispered to Valerie as she passed down the aisle. Valerie’s stomach felt heavy as it did when she got bothered or agitated. The hearing ended with a vote for the study, 9-2.
“It’s because of the mayoral election coming up,” Sister Jonnie said. “Everything gets put aside during elections because of politics.”
“Contract negotiations for city unions are in process, too,” Valerie said. Mayor Gray had been good to Labor, and many low-wage workers were not unionized. She knew that some of the union reps saw the Living Wage as a tangent, with working on their contracts taking precedence now. Valerie got benefits from Bernard’s contract, but the Living Wage had become important to her. It affected the really poor working people in the city. It seemed mean to make them wait and live on five or six dollars an hour. She would keep on trying.
The Hearing was over and the room emptied. Valerie walked out in the throng, and down City Hall’s broad steps. The stairway, so wide and smooth, seemed far from the ordinary life of regular people. It was disappointing that the ordinance had not passed and it meant months of political work to do. Valerie went home to her street covered with falling leaves.
During the Nineties, it had been trendy to plant trees in San Francisco. Fall had been barely noticeable when Valerie had moved from New York to San Francisco. Today, the display of colors dotted the streets. It was almost Election Day and Halloween. Halloween decorations covered the doorways and the windows of the houses along Evans. Lorraine ducked outside her door and hung up an ear of Indian corn. Lorraine felt lonely. “There were good people working in the fields,” she thought. “And food still needs to be harvested.” Andy drew a picture of a pumpkin and taped it to her window. She remembered the wind along Lake Michigan. She put Valerie’s newsletter on her bureau, one of the three pieces of furniture in the room. Would Valerie Pollak call her? It was windy tonight, and Andy hoped the homeless people on the street were all right.
Valerie, at home, mused, “Why is Election Day so close to Halloween? As though ghosts, goblins, and politicians have something in common with one another. Or is it all just a big costume party?”
It was Election Day, and Valerie went to vote in a neighbor’s garage, a short walk from her home. This part of her street had small homes built in 1924 with Spanish red tiled roofs. Her house’s tile was blue. Little metal chimneys poked out of the houses, not always straight up. Once this had been the outskirts of the city, practically farmland. Her neighborhood was a mixture of political views—some people were conservative, but others quite liberal. She had walked her precinct in elections past as a neighborhood volunteer. Valerie left her dog looking out the window. She admired the purple flowers next door, and walked two blocks down the street towards the direction where the “recluse activist” lived. Standing in front of Valerie behind two others voters, was a woman who could be the rumored-about woman. She wore a kerchief over a long braid of white hair. “If it’s her, what can I say?” Valerie thought. They both stood in the garage, waiting their turn. I’ll try to talk to her Valerie determined. “Hello,” Valerie said gingerly. “Good morning,” Lorraine said, then turned her head away. But something made her turn back. Valerie still had a Living Wage button pinned onto her green vest. You weren’t supposed to campaign near a voting booth, but so far, this wasn’t on the ballot.
“Causes,” the elderly woman said. “I used to be involved in those.” She had an accent from Texas, the state from which Lorraine had originally sprung.
“I’m on a committee…,” Valerie started to say.
“Oh, the Living Wage,” this woman with her long braid said broadly “That’s a good thing. It’s the kind of thing I would have worked on. Poor folks work hard and have nothing to show for it.”
“Well, this is going well,” thought Valerie. “If it is her, she’s talking to me. The Living Wage is definitely the subject to talk about. And maybe I could snag an interview.”
“Lots of people out for the election today,” said one of the monitors.
Your name?” he asked.
“Lorraine McDougall Smith. Got to go vote now,” Lorraine added as she was handed her voting card, and disappeared into a booth.
“Can I keep her talking to me?” thought Valerie.
Valerie finished at the same time as Lorraine, due to Lorraine’s eyesight. When they both had finished, Valerie found herself walking besides this lady towards their homes.
“Now,” mused Valerie, “do I tell her I know who she is?”
“I heard about an activist who lives on this street,” Valerie started.
“That’s likely me,” Lorraine sighed. “And what do you do?”
“I’m a journalist. I’m the editor of a newsletter. And I’m on the Organizing Committee of the Living Wage Coalition, and work for social change for other groups.” She felt a little like Andy must have felt in writing her letter.
“I suppose she’ll try and sweet talk me into an interview,’ thought Lorraine. But they both paused on the sidewalk, and then Lorraine smiled.
“Oh, I may as well ask this young woman a thing or two,” thought Lorraine.
“How’s your politicking coming?” Lorraine asked.
“Unless we get two on-the-fence supervisors to join two others and put it on the ballot, we’ll have to start a petition campaign to place it on the ballot.” Valerie wondered if she would like to be involved. “We could use volunteers,” Valerie added.
“Oh, I just might,” Lorraine said cordially in a stronger Texas twang.
“If you’d like to, the public can come to meetings.”
Valerie looked at Lorraine more carefully. Perhaps, this elderly woman wasn’t well enough to do this. Her face was lined, and her hands had age spots. She looked alert though. Valerie found a business card in the bottom of her purse, and gave it to Lorraine as Lorraine went behind her little gate.
“Will I see her again?” thought Valerie, noticing the tiny pink brewer’s roses growing along Lorraine’s fence.
While Valerie sat in front of a screen, Lorraine spent that evening, a chilly one for San Francisco, inside the house into which she had faded. But being inside this cocoon could be cozy and tonight her kitchen, with a hooked rug on the floor, was filled with the sweet smell of molasses.
Her house had been built in 1910. While Valerie’s house was part of a group of row cottages built in the twenties, Lorraine’s house had the look of a farmhouse with its sloping green roof. She had come to San Francisco during the Great Depression. Her life in Texas was mostly far in the past. She’d become a diehard San Franciscan, at one time knowing scores of people and organizations, becoming the secretary and president of several groups, because of her immersion in the strikes that she’d lived through in the
‘30s and ‘40s. But, she had a few habits left over from Texas. Every few weeks, she cooked a pot of barbecued beans like the one she watched boiling on the stove while
Valerie sat in front of the flickering screen. Also, the hooked rug on the kitchen floor had been hand-made by her mother. And she remembered agricultural workers from the
Texas fields, and dockworkers down by the Gulf who seemed to her like the San
Francisco longshore workers.
Now, Lorraine sat quietly in her kitchen.
She still remembered the Dust Bowl, especially on evenings like this. Sometimes the fog on Evans, the borderline of the fog rolling in, reminded her of the clouds of dust.
Though, she thought, the fog was cleansing, too, it took away the dirt in the air, and it made her glad that she lived in San Francisco. Lately, she had these kinds of thoughts to herself when no one else was around. She just didn’t see too many people lately—lately being the last ten years. She gardened a bit—a skill one might have thought she’d learned in Texas as a child, but that she’d picked up in California as the weather was warm enough to garden all year long and on her gardening forays, she vaguely noticed the passing neighbors and the new ones.
After more than sixty years of living on the same street, she didn’t keep up with every person’s comings and goings. She had seen Valerie walking down the sidewalk, carrying her briefcase with purpose, or stopping to appreciate the opposite neighbor’s garden of purple ice flowers. Lorraine noted to herself that this woman was probably going towards the underground subway station carrying workers downtown. It had been put in many years after she’s settled on the street. But, for a person who’d been involved in the lives of others, carrying about their pay, if they had enough food, did they have a good pension plan, at 88, she mostly fretted about her own life—picking up food at the local convenience store run by George who had emigrated from Lebanon. She did get the newspaper delivered every day in the morning. There was a time I used to make speeches, she thought to herself in the kitchen, as she heated up her beans on the stove. She had her old magazines and papers from her political work heaped on bookcases. Who would want them—now, that so many of her friends from the old days and struggles were gone?
Lorraine even knew that people talked about her as if she were dead. She was mentioned in awed terms as a missing heroine of the Movement. But, she wasn’t missing. She was in her house every day, adjusting her bookshelves. She wasn’t down and out, but she did feel a bit down. Perhaps, even a little depressed. “Well,” she thought, “it’s either my knees, my sight, or my teeth. I’m not much of a specimen, am I…? And what if I descend into what is called a ‘depressive personality’?”
“But now, that gal on the street could bring me back in,” she continued to think. A picture of the Central Valley fields went through her eyes for a moment. “So, why did I stop?” She knew other elderly people still helped out – at least with something easy like making phone calls. “I’ve been mulling over the people I lost. Causes I lost. Sometimes, my views changed, and my old buddies became angry at me, or so I thought.” Her comrade Lydia had stopped talking to her. Others moved away because the government was harassing them. It had made her afraid. As she had grown much older, the fears had started to come back. “And then, worst of all,” she smiled at herself, “I need a cane to walk.”
In the meantime, Valerie hurried by Lorraine’s house each day, living some of the life that Lorraine used to have.
“The Living Wage Campaign,” Lorraine murmured to herself, “would be interesting to be involved in.”
Alice Elizabeth Rogoff earned an MA in English– Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and has attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She also earned a Certificate in Labor Studies from City College, San Francisco, and formerly was the Recording Secretary of the San Francisco Living Wage Coalition. Her work has appeared in Black Maria, Garland Court Review, Caveat Lector, and Noe Valley Voice. Her poetry book Mural won a 2004 Blue Light Book Award and Barge Wood was published by CC, Marimbo in 2012. She received an Individual Literary Cultural Equity Commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission for poetry and broadsides about San Francisco women labor organizers. She also won First and Second prizes in the Pacific Media Workers freelance contest. She has been a District winner in the Poets 11 contest of the San Francisco Public Library.