The October 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

The Aristocracy and the Disaster

In Katrina's Wake, Oakland Batters Homeless

A Perfect Storm of Racism

Katrina: Ongoing Human Disaster

FCNL Speaks Out on Katrina

Kerry's Kids: Health Care for Poor Children

Fresh Start Gives Kindness Awards

The Dying Gift of Sharon Ostman

A 500-Year-Old War on the Poor

37 Million Live in Poverty in US

Julia Vinograd: Poet Laureate of Berkeley Streets

Innovative Plans for Homeless Housing

Disabled Woman on a Long Road Back Home

Photographer's Eye for the Dignity of People

Poor Leonard On Prejudice

The Flower Lady

October Poetry of the Streets


ARCHIVES

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.

Berkeley's Visionary Poet Laureate of the Streets

For more than 30 years, poet Julia Vinograd has written lyrically about the lost, the misfits, the downtrodden, the abandoned, the wild and free.

Review by B.N. Duncan

Julia Vinograd's 50th book, Skull & Crosswords, depicts the poet with a damaged human skull and a real necklace of teeth from her dead friend Gypsy Catano.

An excerpt from the City of Berkeley Proclamation Honoring Julia Vinograd With Lifetime Achievement Award:

"She gives us a voice when ours vanishes. She gives voice to the homeless, the street performers, the merchant, the coffee drinker, friends and foes alike, and her words, like a sharp knife, cut deep into the truth. She describes us as full of life, and love, and heartache. She makes us honest. We, the eccentric, the lonely, the broken are given a voice."

Telegraph Avenue's visionary poet Julia Vinograd's latest book, Skull & Crosswords, is her 50th volume of poetry. The front cover displays a photograph of the poet holding a damaged human skull. She has dealt a lot in her poetry with messages of decline, downfall, dying and doom. Vinograd told me that the book's cover also shows the necklace of Gypsy Catano's teeth, draped along both sides of the poet's photograph. Gypsy made the necklace and gave it to Julia after he lost his teeth.

Over the years, many original individuals have come and gone on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue scene. Gypsy Catano, long gone, was a street person, and a man of many parts -- known for being an activist, rogue, inspirational leader, violent alcoholic, outlaw, goof, and eccentric with a colorful, vital spirit. He died a few years ago while having an epileptic seizure with a chicken bone stuck in his throat.

Over the many years since a colorful street life began flourishing on Telegraph, a lot of the inspired, creative and countercultural dimension to life on the fringe in Berkeley has diminished, although there is still much of interest.

In Skull & Crosswords, illustrations by artist Chris Trian emphasize the sense of downfall, lack of direction, spiritual maiming, and inward helplessness that Vinograd's poetry communicates as widespread in our society. Homeless people are very much a symptom and result of the society's deficiency.

Street-observer Julia Vinograd often writes about the lost, the misfits, the downtrodden, the disinherited, the abandoned -- people who are victims of society and victims of their own selves, and who often can be victimizers of others. Living in poverty herself, she's stuck to her guns and kept writing poetry for well over 30 years.

In reading certain of the poems in Skull & Crosswords, I reflect how quite some years back the socially marginal scene on Telegraph had much more special inspiration. There were more people with really interesting personalities and minds; there were more poor and homeless people with purposes and projects beyond just getting by; there was more of a feeling of being together and belonging together. But the scene, being largely parasitic, no doubt bears the seeds of its own destruction.

In Skull & Crosswords, the poem, "For A Friend Arrested At The Demonstration," brings up a conflict between the need for serious, thoughtful perception and action, on the one hand; and, on the other, the desire for fun and kicks and having a party and goofing off and being like rebellious children. A major flaw and failure of the 1960s lay in this conflict, and it's still with us. Freedom means the need for sufficient discipline of oneself.

"People On The Street With Nowhere To Go For Thanksgiving" expresses the personal negation that alienated, stranded, down-and-out people can feel on a special holiday. In Vinograd's special way of combining verbal playfulness with realistic observation, we get a "shattered dreams" picture of street people being consumed, having their spirits wasted by privation.

"Street Crazy Playing A Flute" presents a vivid, abysmally sad, though fascinating, portrait of a needy, aged-before-her-time street person who is exhausted in spirit. Vinograd makes the reader pay appreciative attention to a person commonly ignored as much as possible.

"John the Baptist On The Street" expresses profundity in someone stranded on the street in a state of impotent rage and need. He feels that something is owed to him, and he's indignant. Life isn't working out the way he wants; it doesn't seem to be working out for him, period. The poem points to spiritual failure and downfall in our society. Without preaching, Vinograd brings out flaws in people's make-up. The suffering of the bums is real, but so is the lack of character that many of them blatantly display.

The autobiographical poem, "For My 60th Birthday," expresses attrition, disappointment and a sense of being violated and consumed through the years of a long life. Life can be a bummer when you're poor and just one step above living on the street.

"Old Woman" calls attention to a mentally desolate old lady isolated from all other people, someone who seems hopelessly trapped on her own solitary fringe. The reader gets a sense of pointless misery. The old woman might be one of many old people who have lost any point in their lives. One point Vinograd often makes, being a shrewd observer of irony, is the actual pointlessness and waste of many people's lives in our declining, artificial society.

"Anniversary Party At People's Park" conveys a sense of escapism and possible doom. People's Park is still a source of meaning and morale, but people mostly just want to be happy in the moment, not get organized within oneself and organized together to achieve constructive purpose; it's too easy to just enjoy the goodies available at the moment. The charm and funk of the scene as depicted indicates a need for realistic sobriety. For the reader, there's a happy sense of enchantment in the colorful choice of words to designate a quasi-tribal event that still seems halfway vital.

The effects of mass industrialism, corporate capitalism, and madly addictive consumerism have never occurred to this extent in past ages of history. In modern times, people face a new sort of severe challenge to their integrity. A society so much given over to greed and waste produces much waste of mind and spirit.

With "Baglady On A Park Bench," Vinograd really gets into some of what might be going on in the mind of an old, wasted, homeless woman. A stark picture of personal decline, the old baglady has little left for herself except memories; she's a casualty of herself and of a society that doesn't make enough sense.

"Telegraph Avenue After The Chagall Show" brings out the smallness of people that dominates a society for lack of an uplifting vision to inspire people to use the large and really good parts of their nature. You can go to an exhibit and see the beauty of Chagall's art, but it doesn't solve any problems and miseries in our failing society; it doesn't really relate to us here and now. Vinograd points to some homeless youngsters on the street who may have little to cling to that is spiritually sustaining.

While the subjects of Vinograd's poems are often people on the street who are commonly seen as merely negative or trivial, she has a certain way of painting magic combinations of words in her poems; there's a special verve in her expression that shows us that these people really can prove interesting and significant if we pay attention to them.

The poem, "Sparechangers," in its interesting choice of words, gives heart-awakening life and color to a scene of needy people being ignored by lots of passsers-by as they beg for money on the street. Over and over again, Vinograd makes valid, moving, arresting subjects of people and incidents that are commonly treated as of no interest or nonexistent.

In the autobiographical poem, "On Receiving A Lifetime Achievement Award From The City Of Berkeley," old-timer Julia Vinograd presents the event as anticlimactic and no real ego-enhancement. Vinograd had publicly received from Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates an honorary proclamation for representing some of "the spirit of Berkeley," and the day of the event, June 5, 2004, was proclaimed "Julia Vinograd Day." This event helps mark her place in history. In her poem, she doesn't sound triumphant, and points out comical, ironic aspects to the situation. There's almost a sense of deflation, as with many of her portrayals of street people.

In summary, Skull & Crosswords and Vinograd's body of work in general constitute a testament that includes overlapping categories of entertainment, art for art's sake, documentation, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, satire, muckraking, biography, and autobiography.

Vinograd has established an impressive legacy, with half a hundred books produced so far about the foibles and frailty of the human race, with street people and homeless people often being prime examples. Vinograd seems to write as though her life depends on it. She certainly rates a place in collections of American literature in the history of this country.

In her long career as a poet on the fringe, she has sometimes written about people and situations as though they're cute and quaint when a lot of the time they obviously aren't that way. It's as though she sometimes doesn't want to see that it can be really bad, really dangerous, out on the street, where dire passions can rage.

Vinograd never writes about low-class people who commit a lot of the violence on the street. Telegraph Avenue has abundant racial variety, but in her work there's an absence of rendering how people of different races behave and interact, especially when there's violence or conflict between the races.

There have been many interesting homeless and socially marginal people, often of impressive deeds and accomplishments, that she has never written about.

One street person, J.J.D., often homeless, was a man of both warm fellowship and paranoid complications, while having a lot of trouble with alcoholism. He wrote an observant, valuable street-diary, produced his own sort of newspaper, and has done much serious computer work.

V.J., a vehicle dweller, was mild-mannered while having a strong spirit, and did a lot of gardening and construction work in People's Park. He has religious beliefs that involve progress far beyond the material plane, and in a Berkeley election ran for a seat on the City Council.

C.M., another funky street person, homeless a lot of the time, did many moving, far-out, bizarre, dream-world ink drawings, and had lots of tattoos in the style of his drawings made on his body.

A staunch, gritty, idiosyncratic street person with a long homeless history, M.S.S. created art with a special, peculiar combination of whimsy and grimness.

M.M.T., a spunky, witty guy, drew and self-published, while he was homeless, a series of ten comic books about the life of being down and out.

A female street person who was homeless for many years, K.M.N., a strangely waif-like person who seemed out of place in this corrupt, fallen world, produced amazing ink drawings that reflected a rough, raw, rugged, ragged edge of life.

Another street person, H.M., is a proud urban outdoorsman, and an intelligent, articulate, dissident-styled, conspicuous eccentric. He has received considerable credit as a philosopher with saving vision, and has kept getting disciples.

M.D.G.F., a homeless woman, and a quirky, anguished, verbal person, kept an intensely confessional street diary. A muscular man of the street, R., has long been conspicuous for his ear-shattering vocalizations and gymnastic stunts in public.

W.B.W, a wiry rebel who used to be a regular Telegraph Avenue fixture with his guitar and his public declaiming, produced a lot of one-of-a-kind Xeroxed publications with off-beat poetry and prose.

D.M.M, a sharp-minded tough guy, was once homeless and has had a lot of trouble with the bottle. He has shown a strong duality whereby he can be brazenly violent (even once biting on someone's leg like a bulldog would); while, on the other hand, he's done constructive campaign work for homeless civil rights, and promoted public entertainment in the form of music shows in People's Park.

A brash extravert of the street, M. wrote and self-published a novel with the adventures of a radical, hot-blooded hero who seeks to save the world.


These are examples of people who have distinguished themselves in the Telegraph Avenue fringe-scene who Julia Vinograd hasn't written about.


But, in all fairness, it must be acknowledged that an artist's particular vision will enable him or her to say some things, but will exclude some other things. The way that Vinograd's poetry voices a special combination of the playful and the grim relates closely to how a lot of the socially marginal street life of Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue does contain a combination of the playful and the grim.

Through her observations of failure and funk in a specific microcosm, she reflects on failure in society at large. She stands out as a luminary and shines light on the actual meanings and significance of numerous sights and incidents that are momentarily noticed on the street, but are promptly forgotten by many.

Julia Vinograd stands among the writers who deliver a penetrating expose of the times. With the decline in the quality of life in our times, politics seems to go nowhere. Writers and artists seem unable to provide the positive, uplifting vision that is needed.

We stand in drastic need of spiritual leaders of the stature of Jesus and Buddha. But do a lot of people even want to listen to serious spiritual guides in a world that's increasingly like a combination of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984?


Anniversary Party at People's Park
by Julia Vinograd

Drummers on stage, circles of people whirling,
rags and feathers.
We're a tribe, we're on the cover
of National Geographic where native women
carry baskets on their heads, bare breasts swaying.
We don't have any baskets,
we've got some basket cases
and a few girls shrug their shirts off
while freckles pour down from the sky.
A bottle of red wine goes around a circle
of reddening faces, brighter than blood.
Broken teeth grin. Beer cans blossom.
Enough spills for our thirsty ghosts.
Lovers' hands get big and blurry.
We're a tribe, we move in mystic circles,
like the drunk said when the cop
told him to walk a straight line.
Damp grass licks our bare feet like a puppy's tongue.
Half the people here can't do anything
but magic
and magic dissolves in the rain.
It rained yesterday, it will rain tomorrow
but today we're having a party
in the hole of a hostile donut.
The thing about the park is
you can't just go there
unless the park comes out to meet you.
Today it has. We're a tribe.
In spite of a sound system from hell
we're using the music to climb ourselves
like dancing up a rusty fire escape
to steal the fire.


SPARECHANGERS
by Julia Vinograd

The crowd shrugs off their eyes like soggy spitballs.
A grunge tribe share day-old donuts in the rain,
their belts low slung
down to the crack in their butts.
A wheelchair veteran with ghostfires
licking at his wheels.
Empty paper cups on mock fishing poles.
Their chants aren't words anymore,
"spare change" is spoken dandruff
and must be brushed away;
what would a girl say if a new shirt
gets covered with begging dandruff?
Not even cruelty. Sometimes I wish it were.
The crowd hates the other football team
or politicians
but they don't hate what doesn't exist.
The stolen shopping cart isn't there,
even though it's pushed by a skinny scream
piled high with junk and topped with a toy pink plastic phone.
Lovers leaning into each other
in a winter doorway aren't there.
A mother aiming her crying child at the crowd isn't there.
Sparechangers spend their days being erased like typos.
Saying "I am so alive, I'm here, sort of,"
is hard, mind-breaking work.
Goth girls play at being vampires
but it's spare changers who cast no reflections,
no one wants to see.
If a tired guy with a cardboard sign has a small fuzzy puppy,
the puppy gets a smile.
The crowd feels guilty enough about people they love;
there's no guilt left over for anyone else.


John The Baptist On The Street
by Julia Vinograd

Skinny, tattered jacket, tangled wild beard,
sharp knees on the sidewalk
outside a sandwich and salad shop;
a John the Baptist woodcut.
Someone had given him a plastic container
of salad-to-go instead of spare change.
He howled, head thrown back,
dirty fingers clawing limp cringing lettuce
till even the celery whimpered and bled.
His rage worked magic on mayonnaise
and carrot peelings.
They became the torn fur of a small desert
animal that didn't get away.
He snarled, scattering bones in all directions.
John the Baptist turns wherever he is into desert.
He preaches to stones, lizards and cactus
in their own language.
When the cops came on a noise complaint
he didn't fight them the way he fought his salad.
He didn't answer their questions, only waited.
Either they'd go away or take him away.
Either way they weren't real to him.
Messiahs come and go, like the tide, in and out
but the Baptist's still blocking the sidewalk,
raging, radiant and waiting.


Street Crazy Playing A Flute
by Julia Vinograd

Her mind ran over her face like a train wreck.
What was left twitched, at off moments.
But she played a wooden flute
as if her hands belonged to someone who never worried.
Thin shoulders huddled around the music,
stuck in a pile of clothes that would rather be in a closet.
Might've been young if she'd been someone else.
A cold grey evening.
People hurried off the street before it didn't rain,
nobody stopped to watch her play.
She blew elbow-shaped notes and chords
stamping like boots for warmth, almost a crowd
but no faces, she always had trouble with faces.
Inside, people made dinners.
Hospital food had been beef stew without the beef
and frightened jello.
Her flute craved candied roses and catastrophes.
She'd passed a restaurant once.
Thru the window she'd seen lobsters piled on a tray
and bright small sharp instruments
either for cracking shells or brain surgery .
Her flute poured out soft warm buttersauce
into the cold evening till if you were a lobster
you'd love to be eaten. She'd been 51/50'd briefly.
She hadn't noticed enough to be annoyed
except they defined her flute as a hard object
and took it away. Now she had it back.
What would've been a smile for someone else
crawled onto her face.
Her flute played Mount Rushmore for a closing flourish,
not president's faces (she always had trouble with faces)
but a mountain-sized hot fudge sundae with a cherry.
Then she put down the flute.
When the silence came looking for her
she ran away.


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