Tag Archives: Street News Service

The gravity of abuse: Part III: No contact

All photos by Kate Baldwinw

The third in our series on one family’s struggle to survive domestic violence. Read the first two in the series here.

By Rosette Royale, Street News Service

Safe house

What if no one showed up?

In early October 2009, Brandy Sweeney stood outside a grocery store in an unfamiliar neighborhood, her belongings gathered around her feet, her three-day-old son cradled in her arms. Someone was supposed to meet her there and drive her to a safe place, but the person hadn’t arrived. So she waited. Two minutes, three minutes, four. Continue reading

Life, one breath at a time

by Maggie Tarnawa

Martha Mason’s “Breath: A Lifetime in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung” is relatively short as memoirs go, but it’s not a quick read. Therein lies its strength and weakness. The author’s voice and style command praise, but the reader is ultimately left searching for something more substantial.

Mason, born in 1937 in Lattimore, North Carolina, contracted polio as an 11-year-old girl. She spent the next 61 years of her life in the 800-pound, bright yellow, steel cylinder that made it possible for her to breathe, only emerging for short intervals to be bathed and turned.

Soon after learning that she will live in an iron lung until she dies (which her doctor then said might be only a few years), Mason resolves never to be a “Barbara” (a girl in her second-grade class who needed help with everything after she broke her arm). She also credits her enormous will to live and excel to her competitive spirit and her tireless mother, Euphra Mason. She went on to graduate from high school, Gardner-Webb College and Wake Forest University, first in her class at each school. Clearly, Martha possesses no ordinary zest for life. Continue reading

Paul Loeb: The power of one lies in the many

by Rosette Royale, Street News Service

Sometimes unknown people do big things. Take Virginia Ramirez. Virginia lived near an elderly widow in a dilapidated house in San Antonio, TX. and, for years on end, Virginia saw the woman get sick each winter. The widow couldn’t afford to fix her home, so Virginia sought the aid of city agencies. The agencies provided little help and ultimately, the widow died of pneumonia. Enraged at the senseless death, Virginia went to a community organizing group, saying she wanted someone to do something. “What are you going to do about it?” a group member asked her in turn.
A 45-year-old mother with an eighth-grade education, Virginia felt there was little she could do. But after a little prodding, Virginia held a house meeting to discuss the issue. Nine neighbors showed up. Together, they researched why the widow had gotten little help and discovered that money earmarked to repair homes in their barrio – funds that could have helped the widow – had been diverted to a more affluent neighborhood. Virginia led a force of 60 neighbors to a city council meeting, to protest how they had been denied the funds. There, she spoke her truth. The city council gave them back the money. And, without even knowing it, Virginia had become a community activist.
Virginia said, “I never knew I had it in me.” She may not be alone. All over – in small towns, in crumbling cities, in the boonies – people who don’t think they have anything special inside may have some little spark that, given the right conditions, can grow into a roaring, steady flame. And if you need more examples of empowered people, Paul Rogat Loeb’s your man.

In books such as “Hope in Hard Times: America’s Peace Movement and the Reagan Era” and “The Impossible will Take a Little Time,” Loeb has sought ways to help ordinary people dust off their cynicism and disbelief in society – not to mention themselves – to see how they can become agents of change. Don’t think of it as a self-help strategy: It’s a call to social activism. And he calls to readers with stories of people like Virginia.

A wealth of these stories appear in “Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times” (St. Martin’s, $16.99), a reissue of a 1999 book that uses compassion to invoke the need for a return to social activism. As guides, Loeb mixes the tales of people like Nelson Mandela with Virginia Ramirez, to show how little steps have changed people’s lives.

The book’s reissue means that Loeb, whose writings also appear on The Huffington Post, has to hit the road to do a publicity tour. But before he took off for the East Coast, the Seattleite had a little chat about ordinary people and extraordinary change, touching on the lives of Rosa Parks, local fisherman Pete Knutson, Nelson Mandela and his own next-door neighbor.

Rosette Royale: In the intro to this book you start off by recounting an appearance you had on CNN with Rosa Parks. You mention how she’s often portrayed as this lone pioneer, but that’s actually not the case.

Paul Loeb:
She’s coming in from remote, I’m sitting in a studio in Atlanta, so I don’t actually meet her, but how can you not be totally excited? They say, basically, one day Rosa Parks started the Civil Rights movement, and I’m just kinda groaning. What they’re stripping away to me are three really key elements for change. The image is here’s this lone activist (who) acts completely on her own, acts in isolation — you know, she was tired and her feet hurt — and if you look, there’s a whole community around her: She was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter and the mentor to the youth section. The portrayal of Parks in isolation strips away this community who made it possible, after that day on the bus, for that whole boycott to occur. Continue reading

Andy Warhol once said that, “In the future everyone will have 15 minutes of fame.” But is that enough these days?

Here one second,      gone the next (Real Change)

From the June 26, edition of Street Roots

Remember Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher? Chances are, that name doesn’t set off bells of recognition. But if someone said “Joe the Plumber,” you might recall that shaved-headed man who questioned Barack Obama on the campaign trail, about small business tax. For a while, his face, his nickname, they were everywhere, as TV shows and newspapers and blogs and the Republican Party became obsessed with the guy. And then — — he seemed to fall away into oblivion.

Or how about Thomas Beatie? He’s the transgender man who announced he was pregnant. That picture of him — with his military haircut and chin stubble — touching his swelled, there’s-a-baby-inside belly was an internet hit. He even appeared on Oprah, to the delight and confusion of millions of viewers: A pregnant man? But wait: Is he really a man? The blogosphere was a-twitter. Then… he disappeared, resurfacing just long enough to announce he’d had a girl, before falling below the waves of obscurity yet again.

There are more people like Joe and Thomas out there: Short-lived media sensations who, for a few weeks, maybe a couple of months, appear to be everywhere. Until, at some point, they’re not. Gone. Bye-bye. Forgotten. Which begs the question: Why? Why does it keep happening? And what does it mean, that our attention gets drawn to ephemeral distractions?

Maybe Bill Wasik knows. What’s that? Ain’t heard of him? Well, not yet, you haven’t. But chances are you might be familiar with something Wasik did: He created “flash mobs,” those seemingly impromptu actions where dozens, maybe hundreds, of people, brought together by the Internet, would converge on a department store, bar, train station and do something — then leave. His experiences with an idea that led to a social phenomenon caused him to consider, on a deeper level, how our interconnected, hyper, hyped-up media culture influences our lives. And how we, in turn, influence the media.

These observation are gathered in “And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture,” (Viking, $25.95), a rollicking ride through some of the sensations of the past few years, their stories presented in bits, bytes, graphs and charts that take a longer look at the impact of the transitory. Speaking from New York, Wasik, a senior editor at Harper’s, let loose on social science, YouTube fame and the concept of the “nanostory.”

Rosette Royale: You start off your book with Blair Hornstine. What was Blair’s story?

Bill Wasik: Blair Hornstine was a high school student in New Jersey and there was a dispute over whether she would be named valedictorian of her high school or whether it would be declared a tie with another boy. When the principal declared a tie, Blair sued the school to become valedictorian. And of course this became a big media circus where, “Oh, this litigious society. This girl is suing to become valedictorian!” and it became fodder for all the cable news shows and all the Internet sites. It was this classic media tempest in a teapot.
Continue reading

A duet: Soloist writer talks about his experiences


From the June 12 edition of Street Roots

You never know what you’ll find when you walk down the street. And there was Steve Lopez, in 2005, doing just that, making his way through L.A. when he heard it: music. Nearby stood a man – homeless, playing for what seemed to be beauty’s sake – drawing his bow over the strings of a beat-up violin. Lopez stopped and listened. He introduced himself to the violinist. And from that moment on, both men’s lives became interwoven.

That violinist was named Nathaniel Ayers and Lopez, a columnist for the L.A. Times, wrote about their encounter. Soon after that, he wrote another column. Then another and another. As he continued, over the months, to chronicle their relationship, a complex portrait of Ayers unfolded: a childhood in Cleveland; a scholarship to Juilliard, the premier New York arts academy; the onset, in his early 20s, of paranoid schizophrenia; homelessness; nights on Skid Row.

Readers loved the columns and, buoyed by support from a newspaper editor, Lopez, already an author of books, wrote another one: “The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship and the Redemptive Power of Music” (Putnam, 2008), which detailed their at times chaotic yet inspiring relationship. From that, a recent hit movie was born. All of which has kept Lopez busy and humanized Ayers.

We tried to set up a time to talk. But scheduling those minutes to chat took some work. So, while in a cab en route to the airport, Lopez revealed, via cell phone, how his life has been affected by a man who lives on the street, a man for whom Beethoven provides salvation, and praised the gifts that can arise just from stopping to hear the music.

Rosette Royal: I heard you came across Nathaniel Ayers when you were out looking for material for a column.

Steve Lopez: Yeah. I was in downtown Los Angeles and I heard music. So I turned and looked and here’s a guy living out of a shopping cart and he was playing a violin that was missing two strings. And he looked very determined. So it just begged the question: Who is he?

So all of that made me very curious and I went over and introduced myself and that was how it started. He was very wary of me and he looked a little frightened, but he calmed down a little bit. I said, “Why do you play right here?” And he points across the street and he says, “There’s the Beethoven statue and I play here for inspiration.”

I realized — because he had some clear mental issues — that it was going to take a while. So this just began a series of meetings over the course of several weeks, and every time I met with him he was a little more comfortable and a little more forthcoming. I wrote my first column with no idea that there’d be a second one, or a third one, or a 20th one. Or a book. Or a movie. It all happened organically.

And when I wrote the first column, readers responded in a huge way. They sent e-mails in the hundreds, and letters, and they wanted to buy the missing strings. My desk at the L.A. Times was surrounded by boxes of instruments that people had sent, and when I took them to him, I realized that I had just complicated his life — I was afraid he would get mugged for those instruments, and I thought he could even get beaten to death on Skid Row where he lived.

I felt it was my duty to try to get some help for him and keep him out of harm’s way. That’s when I started this dialogue with a mental health agency called Lamp Community and it took me into this world that I knew virtually nothing about: mental illness and homelessness and public policy regarding those issues. Continue reading