The March 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Epidemic of Hate Crimes in U.S.

Radical Dream of Economic Rights

Bush's Budget Harms the Poor

Coretta Scott King's Fight for Equality

Disabled Tenant Faces Eviction in Marin County

Bob Mills: An Activist for the Long Haul

"Song of the Magpie": A Review

How Journalists Sanitize Deaths and Executions

"Ten Minutes, Then Jail" in Santa Cruz

Artists Help Homeless Children

"Warmth in Giving": Art of Elizabeth King

A New Book of Street Spirit Poetry

Homeless Youth Learns Empathy on the Streets

U.S. Is Truly an Orwellian Society

Stories and Fables from the Streets

Homelessness and Survival

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Art and Artists

March Poetry of the Streets


February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005




Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Spirit-Filled Book of Poetry Arises from the Streets

by Lydia Gans

East Bay poets Mary Rudge (at left) and Claire J. Baker strike a militant pose while displaying their new book, "Poems from Street Spirit." Lydia Gans photo

A special feature of Street Spirit that our readers highly value and that makes the paper unique is an abundance of poetry -- poetry written by people who are homeless or housed, who have compassion for their fellow humans struggling to survive, and the gift of being able to find artistic and heartfelt words to express it. It is what gives spirit to the Street Spirit.

Claire J. Baker and Mary Rudge, two poets who have often been published in the paper, have just produced a book titled Poems from Street Spirit. Their new book of poetry is dedicated to the paper, to its editor Terry Messman, and to all the people who help make it happen each month.

Both of these women have received numerous honors and published many collections of their poetry. This little book contains poems that speak of poverty and homelessness, of peace and love and social justice. Its subtitle, "Justice News and Homeless Blues," echoes the subheading of the Street Spirit newspaper.

Suffering from abuse and neglect as a child, Claire Baker began writing poetry when she was in her teens. "I sort of latched onto poetry," she recalls. "I didn't know what I was doing but I kept writing." She found that her poetry elicited some of the attention she craved. "My mother said, 'That's nice, honey,' and I thought, ''Wow, that's different!'"

Claire was soon left on her own and at one point found herself homeless. A creative writing class in night school provided a positive experience she remembers with pleasure. The teacher was very encouraging and her fellow students, mostly older people, "saw me like a little orphan, and would ask me out to dinners."

Claire has worked at all sorts of jobs but she identifies herself as a poet. "I've made my life work as being a poet," she says. She always loved the outdoors, hiking and mountain climbing, and much of her poetry has been about nature. She describes her poems as "philosophical and kind of lyrical." They are carefully crafted and reflect deep thought.

Claire's own experience of homelessness motivates her to write the kind of poetry she submits to Street Spirit. "These poems are easy for me to write," she explains. When she thinks about people on the street, she says, "It's easy for me to empathize. I put myself in their position (and) it helps me to write." All the poems in this little book are short, none is over a page in length, and most leave the reader with a pang of sadness or compassion or an angry desire for justice.

In Claire's poem, "Books," she writes:

While too many dastardly CEOs
fudge books to show amazing profits
live the "high life" on twisted backs
of duped employees and investors,

the homeless try to reassemble
the torn-out pages of their lives,
straighten sore backs to regain
some balance toward the rich reward
known as a roof over one's head.

Now retired, Claire volunteers in community work. About 12 years ago, she became a member of the Unitarian Universalist church, the only church she was ever interested in, she declares. As a result of that involvement, she became interested in social justice and peace issues, interests she shares with Mary Rudge.

Claire and Mary have known each other for over 30 years, having first met through the Alameda poets' group. Their common concerns and, at the same time, their differences in style, motivated them to collaborate on this book.

Mary Rudge also experienced poverty and abuse as a child. She describes how her father would be so stressed out struggling to make a living that he would beat her if she made noise. Nor was there any intellectual stimulation in her childhood.

"We had a dictionary and a Bible," she recalls. "I was a voracious reader. I felt I knew all the words. I felt they were my friends. I began writing poetry as if it was a life force within me."
Unlike Claire, who grew up in the Bay Area, Mary spent the first years of her life in Texas in an environment of violence and bigotry and fear. It was not just racism, she explains, "basically it was control issues." Anyone who challenged the power structure suffered. "I knew teenage boys that were taken out in the woods and beaten -- just to straighten them out."

It was only when her family moved to Oklahoma when she was a teenager that Mary encountered people of many different cultures, primarily the various Indian tribes. It was her first exposure to new ideas, traditions, music and art, and she reveled in the experience. Although her parents didn't see much value in poetry, she "wrote compulsively," she says. "Writing poetry is part of my nature. I'm born to write."

Soon after the family moved back to Texas she got married "just to get away." Her first husband died in an accident. Her second husband was in the Navy and would be at sea for long periods of time. Finally he didn't return at all. She was pregnant at the time with her seventh child, living in the projects in Alameda. When the projects were torn down, she and the children were left homeless.

Mary got help, she recalls, from people who owned a dilapidated old Victorian house that should have been torn down but was rescued by the local preservation society. That was about 35 years ago and she's still in that house, never very far from the edge of homelessness and poverty.

In contrast to Claire's poems, Mary's are longer and have more of a melodic quality to them. They often seem to be reflections on her own experiences. The following two stanzas are part of a longer poem by Mary Rudge entitled, "A Child's View of Winter."


The sun in through my window
when I wake up
makes me feel warm
and loved. I like to
wake up and see the sky.
But the old, old window broke, we could
not afford glass or someone to fix it.
We have found board and cardboard,
and sealed the window hole
because it is winter and we will be cold.
When I wake in the morning and see
darkness, still I know
to feel warm in my heart, to feel loved
because my mother and brother
found cardboard and board.
If we find enough cans extra to pay,
we can have a glass window again.


In winter we only heat one room.
We hang blankets over the doors
and put all our bedding on the floor
and sleep there,
together in one warm room.
I like to hear our breath
in the dark, one family
helping each other keep warm.

Recently, Mary Rudge was named the poet laureate of Alameda. She has won awards and honorary doctorate degrees in the United States and abroad. Her main focus now is writing and research on teaching knowledge and skills to bring about a more peaceful world. Mary told me about working with children, finding out what the word "peace" means to them.

It often has negative connotations, she pointed out. "It was frightening to children (knowing that those) who stood for peace got killed, like King and Gandhi and Christ. And when they heard from their parents, 'Go away and leave me alone so I can have some peace,' and people are at peace now because they are dead, and then the government names its weapons peacekeepers..." Mary went on to talk about how a truly peaceful world has to be based on social and economic justice, respect for people and building healthy communities.

In recognition of her work, she is often invited to participate in events here and in other countries. In describing an invitation to Germany right after the Berlin Wall came down, Mary mused, "It's quite remarkable to think that a person with no assets and no money, just because people respond to what you're saying and it gets out to the world, they start inviting you to places and sometimes paying you to come."

The little book of Street Spirit poems by Claire Baker and Mary Rudge is a rewarding read; it touches the mind and the heart. Hopefully it will be widely available in bookstores. Meanwhile, it can be ordered by contacting either of the authors: or

One Nation Under God
by Mary Rudge

With broken eyeglasses and broken veins
she stands on the corner showing things
have a kaleidoscopic other view.

When she asks spare change
but you pass by
her only response is "God bless you"
and a broken-toothed smile.
She shows you how hearts really break,
can you feel your own?
She lets you see a whole country with
a government full of broken promises.

In the Dark
by Claire J. Baker

I wish you
small invisible wings
to uplift you just in time.

I wish you the stars'
healing story
when you are broken,
fallen from glory.

I wish you the moon's
luminous cloak
that you may shine
in the dark, like God.

A Classic For All Ages
by Mary Rudge

Seven-year-old Diana and I
cry over Gogol's The Overcoat
on channel 9 now
cold Russia old poor man
even without subtitles
his face we both know.
It was cold in our house last winter
we had coats from the thrift shop
at night we slept in one bed
we piled on all the coats.
The cold old man is going to die
we saw that face once in our mirror,
and cry.

Found Among the Homeless
by Claire J. Baker

There are many
so magnanimous
they can give any part
of themselves away
and still remain
star stuff

by Claire J. Baker

Why is a well-dressed
attractive young woman
singing on Solano for money?
Did her boyfriend dump her
there and she needs to get back
to San Jose? Was she locked
out of her parents' home
because she didn't clean her
room? Extra $$ for Christmas?

A lyrical voice, a gray afternoon
an unusual encounter
not easily cubbyholed.

Will one day we see old men
whose monkeys
will dance for dough?

Children who will perform
unusual tricks
for coins?

Wish I knew.
Wish I didn't know.

by Claire J. Baker

How lonely is the swirl of day-old
papers crumpled by unsure hands
that grope but seldom find.
Streets cast a customary
chill when spring arrives
hardly noticed.

A monster stalks these streets,
gulps down men, women, children
who, like papers, sink to cold
pavement, the saddest of
old news...

by Claire J. Baker

America, chuck the double standard
for a worthwhile standard -peace:
rid yourself of stockpiled weapons,
of H-bomb tests, the National War College
where diplomats and generals doubly train
in CIA, WMDs, NSA, ABCs of war-war-war
in all its obvious failures and horrors!

America, chuck the double standard;
model a peaceful paradigm
while there is yet time.
Hey, am I the only one
who feels this way?
O say can we see

by the pawn's early plight!

Gift of the Godmother
by Mary Rudge

Belatedly at your bedside I appear,
your Fairy Godmother, about to bestow
a gift. I grant you a gift
to make up for the thing I did -
that is, not make it to the christening
being detained in the wing-repair shop -
you have grown almost old without your
gift, but see, you need it, so I have arrived.

I bestow upon you, since you are an official now
in a position to use it,
another form; this new you will ride
the bus every day, you will be young and pregnant.
You will have one child, a toddler, in a stroller,
and another in pre-school. You will have carried diapers
and bottles and groceries, for years. Your job
in repetitive motion keeps you on your feet
each day's work the same (yet you still will be
five months pregnant). Your husband's company
folded, merged, went tech, went bankrupt, downsized,
and your husband, laid off, searches daily
for work too. Even with 2 months house rent due,
no rise in the minimum wage seems due - for you.
But, let's count blessings you have used and enjoyed,
up to now:

You have experienced being CEO
of a transit company, belong to the Yacht club,
the Golf club, the Executives Club, how is this
lifestyle change to be a gift you say?
Ah, but the real gift you will get from this is

And children are a gift, you see. The four year old girl
you are taking to Head Start,
then the boy to child care, transferring bus to bus
on your way to work.
I forgot to tell you that when
they look at you with hopeful eyes you will now be
able to help them. Or not. The girl has a passion for
sound, for music, her fingers are filled with skill if the
way is found, so she can fulfill her talents,
she dreams music awake and asleep,
and if she chooses cello, 1st chair in the Symphony,
if it is funded and still exists, is hers. If she chooses
destiny of the concert circuit, she'll astound world
audiences with a beauty their brains and souls have
longed to hear.

It's true you don't look
like a man willing to be a
young pregnant woman with varicose veins
and swollen feet, lifting a stroller on/off buses
and upstairs, carrying groceries too,
not forgetting the children's vitamins, the
washing powder for going to the washateria,
the brave front for the husband who is
growing thinner, more furrowed, as the
no-job-here response to his search takes him
across borderlines of panic and fear.
I am not Malevolent, out of Sleeping Beauty, to
put someone to sleep for a hundred years - I am
your Fairy Godmother, with me you will wake up.

Your eyes will see how people on the bus of the
design you chose for all must step up and
move over each other in wet raincoats and with
briefcases, umbrellas, or crutches, or canes,
with bags of groceries and suitcases on wheels,
to roll their bundles along;
the blind with their guide dogs; the disabled in
their motorized chairs; the mentally ill with their
burden of panic, paranoia and great depressions
who are rejected sitting so close; the obese
who need extra space; those who put their feet on
the seat across, contemptuous of others; those who
must sit in the dirt from the soles of the crude who
have acted so soulless;
the unwashed homeless who ride around and around
as the person without a country, no place to embark to.
What this gift to you will be
is Empathy

and if you tell the directors and board about
social justice, poor choice and cruelty to the poor,
will they listen? Evoked
by you for these masses of transit poor?

See, the one who will be your child, he examines
the transfer so carefully, its marks and written lines,
the little hole a hole punch made, intently, his mind
sees how a thing is designed, intently examining pattern,
he is thinking. His mind has exactness to be a surgeon
given the right school, this will be
your gift to the world, he will save people like you,
and your personal gift will be your resolve
to be known for altruism, benevolence,

You wouldn't want these kids to join gangs
be gang-raped, addicts, drop into the void, victims
of drive-by shootings - or the shooters -

Are you thinking how no one will rich-up working at
the restaurant or the department store like you, at a
minimum wage job, yet you work on and never give up
the dream in sweet desperation to get them a house
with a yard in a nice neighborhood,
figuring it all out as you go back and forth on the bus,

you ask how to do all this on minimum wage with 3 kids
and long hours commuting and so tired -

Oh, well, you well know, you're
already brilliant, have a fine
education and, so young, are already a CEO -
so you've got what it takes
to figure it out.
I take nothing from you by suddenly putting you
in another form. In deed, I am giving you a chance
to figure it out, yes, this great gift, of Discovery,
and most of all, for the good
of your heart and soul, I am giving you,
Another Chance.

1515 Webster St, #303
Oakland, CA 94612Phone: (510) 238-8080, ext. 303

E-mail: Spirit

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Published by American Friends Service Committee

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