Working at acronyms

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Working at acronyms
by Alison Barnet
MySouthEnd.com Contributor
Wednesday Mar 23, 2011

In early 1970, I answered an ad and became part-time secretary at SEPAC (South End Project Area Committee). It was a job in "The Community" but, unlike other acronyms, there was nothing grass roots about it. This was the original SEPAC as appointed by Mayor Kevin White and dominated, not by the radicals of a few years later, but by white professionals and property owners.

With nothing much to do most afternoons, I held court. Friends as well as strangers could see me through the big plate glass windows on Tremont Street and felt free to come in. One of those who frequently parked himself across from my desk was Cameron King, cab driver, constable, and Black Muslim, who loved to shoot the breeze about the state of the world. When Arthur Howe, my boss, came in, Cameron would try to shoot the breeze with him too but Arthur wasn’t interested. Another regular was Jerome, a teenager who lived at Cathedral housing; he was smart and funny and soon he had a job walking Sammy, my landlady’s fat collie.

If I came in early enough, I caught the tail end of the New England Flower Exchange, which started at the crack of dawn at the Cyclorama, built as a Battle of Gettysburg panorama. Floral arrangements looking like gnomes wrapped in plastic dotted the plaza outside, waiting to be trucked to flower stores. Business was sometimes still going strong at an old-fashioned basement restaurant next door, where flower dealers sat at a marble counter eating huge breakfasts and talking so loudly my coffee order couldn’t be heard.

It wasn’t long, though, before the flower exchange was relocated to less-than-bustling Albany Street as part of the South End Urban Renewal Plan, and SEPAC moved into the cavernous Cyclorama along with Royal Cloyd, who had been designated by the city to develop the Boston Center for the Arts. SEPAC had a side room in front, Royal had an office in back, and Royal’s secretary Gale, his sole employee, sat alone in the middle. Once, Royal, with an eye toward making the National Theatre part of the BCA, paid my way into a cowboy movie so I could count the loges.

It was part of my job to stay late and take notes at meetings, but I always had a hard time staying awake. I wasn’t interested in brick sidewalks, curb cuts, and "modified acorn," "starlight," or "lollipop" streetlights. I was, however, in an excellent position to observe the New South End’s movers and shakers, which included Betty Gibson, the South End’s "prestige broker." I got to know them but they paid no attention to me, and later this held me in good stead.

I also started teaching nights at OIC, a black-run adult education center (now Hibernian Hall) in Roxbury, where I tutored an old woman who had been coming there for years in a futile attempt to learn to read. It amazed me that she didn’t even recognize the word "Boston," even though she took public transportation to get to her job out on Route 128. "How do you know which bus to take?" I asked. Her answer was simple: if the riders were black, she knew it was her bus; if they were white, it wasn’t. I thought about the Harvard-Dudley bus: white from Harvard to Mass. Station (Auditorium) and black from there to Dudley. I often said, "If you think there’s no racial segregation in Boston, take a ride on the #1 bus." When my student didn’t learn from me either, OIC assigned me a literacy class.

During class breaks, I always went out into the hall. Mr. Ashley’s electronics class took its break at the same time, and he and I stood talking. Soon, the breaks got so long the students went back to their classrooms, leaving their teachers engrossed in every subject under the sun.

Erik-it was a long time before we were on a first-name basis, despite our long talks-worked all day in an electronics lab, but teaching at OIC was more important to him. He was black and had grown up in the South End’s Cathedral projects. Right after high school, gung ho to fight in Vietnam, he’d gone into the Navy but quickly learned the score. Sent to school in San Diego, Erik, a product of the Boston Public Schools, was surprised to discover he was smart.

One hot Saturday afternoon, I was sitting out on my stoop reading Philip Roth’s Letting Go when I saw Erik walking down my street. He opened his briefcase at the base of the steps and showed me that he was also reading Letting Go. Small world.

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