Conversations With My Father

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I started interviewing Dad in 2020. He died before I had the chance to finish asking him everything I wanted. But I already knew the most important details about his life. I knew that when he saw a wrong, he tried to right it. He saw black people treated unfairly under Jim Crow so he joined the fight for civil rights. He saw the impoverished people in his city placed in deteriorating housing, so he organized for new housing legislation. When he saw poor treatment of his co-workers by management, he became a union steward to represent them. When my Mom was diagnosed with a serious illness, he came home on his lunch breaks to administer her injections. And whenever I had a hard time, he would give me encouragement and be my biggest cheerleader.

My Mom and I knew a man who loved learning and was quick to laugh. He was opinionated and stubborn and self-reflective. He had a heart for oppressed peoples around the world. He was full of ideas and whether it was learning how to use a DSLR in his 70s or starting his first compost pile in his 80s, he taught me by example that you never outgrow learning. Dad’s love story with my mother lasted decades. In his last few years, he told me over and over again how grateful he was for her.

Dad was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. As the second eldest in a large family, he wanted the best for his younger siblings and admitted sometimes that he gave them advice whether they wanted it or not. He loved feeding the birds, and in true Dad style, always watched to make sure the smaller birds weren’t chased off by the bigger birds.

Whenever I was interviewing Dad and he blanked on a memory, he would say: “I’ll tell you next time.” But eventually our next times ran out and soon it was me holding his hand in his hospice bed while telling him my favorite memories. Like how every morning we would sing in the car while he drove me to school. Our favorite song was Unforgettable. He sang Nat King Cole’s part and I sang Natalie’s. Or how we would spend the whole afternoon together in the darkroom at the Harvey Milk Photo Center, stumbling out blinking into the light after a few hours and feeling like it had been only minutes that passed. Or how when I went to bed at night; the sound of Thelonious Monk on the CD player would float up to my bedroom and I felt comfortable and safe drifting off to sleep knowing that Dad was just downstairs.

Thanks for remembering my Dad with me.

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We Were Radicals

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We drove in a Volkswagen van from New Haven down to Selma to take part in the protest. There were four white and four black people in the van. Going through the south in an integrated vehicle drew a lot of attention. We were followed a few times; the police followed us in Georgia and we were fearful. All of us were CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) members. The protest was an MLK event and everyone was there. We all were there for the same reason and it was one of the most exciting events I’ve ever been to.

We drove all day to get there. Two black churches were accommodating people. The KKK were driving around the city and we had to run because we didn’t want to get caught in the street by these guys driving around with shotguns. This was the third attempt to do the march. The first two attempts people were beat by the police. Most of the movement in the south were high school and college kids. They were the veterans. They were singing freedom songs all night long. People were sleeping on the floors and the pews. Kids 18, 19, and younger were walking around with patches on where they got beat but they were fired up to get back out there.

The young people kept everything going; it was amazing. The police and the state troopers were walking along, I think they were ready to beat some black heads. You’d be marching, this guy would have his kid in his arms and tell the kid, “spit on that nigger.” And the kid would spit. Those people were really racist.

I was standing and talking with Nate. Sheriff Clark was standing close to us with other cops and he was talking loud so we could hear. He said, “you could tell these are not our niggers.” He was saying it for our benefit. Sheriff Clark was a bastard.

White women would take pictures of black locals. You know that while you’re talking to these young people in Selma, as soon as the march is over and the sun goes down, a lot of these people would get their ass whipped.

We were radicals; we didn’t want to obey anybody. Selma was SNCC’s (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) baby. They were registering voters. We went down there looking for SNCC people. They were in jail on hunger strike. We left the march to go to the jail to protest the SNCC people being in jail. I didn’t go all the way to Montgomery, but I marched a few days. At night we asked for permission to pitch our tents in the school yard. Cops were standing around. As soon as our tents were pitched, the cops charged into us with billy clubs. This was one of the worst beatings; they whipped the hell out of us. That was the first night on the road. One guy came down from New Haven, one of those brothers clean and dressy with nice shoes and an umbrella cane and they beat the hell out of him. Most of these stories never reached the media; you have to talk to someone who was there.

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The Water Rises Fast

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Georgie Boy, that’s what everybody would call him. He was in his forties. He had what they call a dip net. We’d go out to the James River when the fish were swimming downstream and he’d catch them. We’d be running around and playing. All he needed us for was to carry the sacks back to the pickup truck. One time he took this old guy that he knew and told him, “Don’t mess around now.” At a certain time that dam opens up and you have to get out of there. The water rises fast. This guy had a few drinks and was stumbling around. He slipped and fell in the water and George caught him in the net. If George hadn’t stuck his net out, he would have drowned. George had these big wooden barrels and he’d pack the herrings down with salt and that preserves them. I didn’t care too much for salt herring. He would have a lot of fish and he’d give them to the neighbors. But if he had gotten caught, man. That was illegal to have a dip net. We’d go down when it was getting dark. We had to hurry and get what we could before the dam would open up. We’d be scrambling to get out of there because that water would cover us up in no time.

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You Could Call it Moonshine

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I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone was doing moonshine to some degree. My involvement was in the ‘50s. I lived in an area where selling illegal liquor was the major crime. Corn liquor, that’s the name everyone knew about. You could call it moonshine; it had so many names. I sold bootleg liquor on the streets. I worked for this guy Sammy. He would make runs to the stillery in the country where people were brewing that stuff illegally. He would bring several cases back. A case was 24 large mason jars. The liquor was so heavy it weighed your car down and Sammy would have that stuff in his trunk. Bootleggers had to jack their cars up. You could spot a bootlegger driving down the street; if the trunk was empty, the car rode high. A lot of the young guys would jack their cars up and act like big shots. They were wannabes, show offs.

I went with Sammy a couple times to the still and the cops used to get behind you in the country. You leave out of there and they jump behind you, chasing you. Life was different then. The bootleggers could outrun the cops and the cops had no way of catching them because the bootleggers cars were souped up. Bootleggers had the best mechanics. Policemen didn’t have souped up cars back then, they didn’t have two way radios. If a cop jumped behind you chasing you, there’s no way he could call ahead. They couldn’t outrun the bootleggers and they didn’t have any way to trap them. One time a cop got behind us and followed us but we were leaving them behind. They couldn’t catch up and they couldn’t call ahead to people in Richmond that a car was coming their way.

It was a way for a lot of poor people to make money. They would buy a couple jars of moonshine at a time. And they would sell shots out of their homes to their neighbors so they made enough to support their meager living. That’s what I did.  A lot of people converted their homes to juice joints. People come there and they play music. Especially on the weekends, they would buy dinners like pigs feet and potato salad. I operated Sammy’s house. He didn’t have a jukebox, but a lot of people did. He had the bare minimum. He just sold to a couple of people that he knew in the neighborhood. People coming home from work. The man be kicking their butt all day; they’re tired and they buy a shot and go on home. Virginia had state stores that sold liquor, but it wasn’t moonshine; it was state liquor. They sold at the ABC store which is run by the state and a lot of people didn’t like that liquor. At around 4:30 or 5:00, when the state stores closed, you had to get your liquor before the store closed else you’d be out of luck. People be getting off the bus and they be running trying to get to the store before they close.

Sammy had street operations too. In Richmond, I sold bootleg liquor on the corner just like people sell weed on the corner in this era. But you don’t know much about that, I don’t think. So you don’t know about how that culture works. You could go there and say, “I want a quarter shot.” And that was 75 cents I think. About a quarter of a mayonnaise jar. You’d pour them a shot, they drink it and they go on home. We would hide the jars in the alleyway. Of course we had to keep an eye on it or someone would steal our stuff. I was like 17 maybe. It was very interesting times.

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On the Road

I was on the road with this old man for over a year. We would leave Richmond on Monday morning and get back on Friday. He was the salesman. His name was Harry, but everyone called him Hip. Of course I didn’t call him Hip; I called him Mr. Rosenbloom. We would go to retail stores and my job was to set the racks up for the store owners to look through the samples. I would set the rack up, then I’d bring in bags of clothes and set the clothes up on the racks. Then I would go back out and sit in the car until he’d come to the door and motion me to take that bag out and bring in another bag.

The old man didn’t want anyone else driving his car. He did all the driving. I had to be with him all day and he talked about everything. He’d have the news on the radio and we had our differences; a couple of times I really got into it with him. One time the old man and I had been arguing all day. He said, “What do you want to do? Get out of the car?”

I said, “Yeah, I want to get out of the car.”

So he stopped on the side of the road and said, “OK, get out.”

Of course I didn’t get out. I was in North Carolina, man. Where am I going to go?

We would go down to North Carolina and stay a whole week. He would stay in a motel. I would stay in what they called “tourist homes.” They were an old tradition in the south. Motels didn’t have accommodations for black people at that time. Black people would rent out accommodations in their homes so you could stay with a black family. The old man would go in the store and he would ask the people, “Do you know where my boy could spend the night?”

That’s how they saw me. All black men were “boys.”

I hated staying in people’s houses. One time I stayed with this guy and the only place for me to sleep was in bed with him. I didn’t like that at all. His house was across the street from this girl. And I stayed up just about all night sitting on her front porch talking til her mother called her in. So then I had to go and get in bed with him. This guy had no accommodations to feed me and the old man knew I couldn’t eat there. He would go into the restaurant and bring me food and I would eat my dinner in the car.

You know High Point, North Carolina? Where all the furniture is made? You’ve never heard of High Point? I stayed with one guy who worked there. He was really living good. He was a young guy and his house had nice furnishings and everything. He said he stole all of it from where he worked.

I’m trying to think of a story I could tell you because I encountered a lot of stories staying with all these families. I’m drawing a blank now. I should have written some notes down so I could remember. I’ll tell you next time.

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I Nominate Larry Carter

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This guy approached me and said, “We need to do something, we don’t have any black books or teachers.”

I said, “Ok, we’ll get together and see what we could do.” There were three of us working together. At that time, Black Student Unions were springing up all over the country. There were about twenty black students at the University of New Haven so we invited them to our meetings. Nobody was really interested.

I got the bright idea that we would tell them we already had a group and we needed to elect officials. I wanted more black students, more black books, and black teachers. But that was too radical. They weren’t going to do anything to rock the boat. So they came out and voted to make sure I didn’t get elected president. They elected one of their boys, Crash. He had just gotten back from Vietnam. Crash was a good guy, but for a whole year, he did nothing. I was ragging him the whole time until he got tired of me. At the end of the semester he said at the meeting that he wasn’t going to run for re-election. Another guy nominated me. He said, “I nominate Larry Carter just to see what the fuck he could do.”

I became the president. That same night, I drew up a letter with a list of demands and said we need to see the signs of these things taking place or there won’t be any final exams. It was a small school and it was growing; they didn’t want boycotts to ruin their image. The student secretary found me and said the dean would like to have lunch with me. They used to have a gentleman’s club where white men could go and discriminate. They’d sit in lounge chairs and smoke cigars and read newspapers. That’s where I met with the dean and president. I wore a bright yellow dashiki and I felt really out of place.

One of them told me they didn’t like the way I had made demands. But everything on the list they agreed to. They wanted to move forward, they knew more and more black students would be coming. When I started there were seventeen and within the next year or two we had over 200.

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Negro Removal

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They had these urban renewal programs, we called them “negro removal.” Someone in the white community would start boarding houses up in the black community and telling people to relocate, but there were no vacancies to relocate to. The city owned a lot of properties through eminent domain and these properties would sit vacant for years so people on welfare had nowhere to go. Then the city put families in those houses that had been sitting vacant. The places were awful and they wouldn’t clean them out or anything, they’d put families right in there.

There were a lot of slumlords in New Haven refusing to fix properties up and people were making a lot of profit off of those rundown houses so we were fighting them and the city. The city put out a notice of the biggest slumlords in New Haven. We did our research and found it was the city that was the biggest slumlord because they had all these properties just sitting there that they were putting people into without doing renovations. We were trying to get legislation passed so we staged a sit in at City Hall. At one point we chained ourselves to the doors and they had to cut the locks off. We did a sit in on one of their board meetings. They dragged us outside and dropped us on the sidewalk and left us.

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I Been Lying About My Age All My Life

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I was 21, something like that. What do you mean? How old was I in the ‘70s, you do the math. No, not late 30s, I couldn’t have been that old. I don’t think I was that old. It doesn’t seem like it. But you may be right, I don’t know. See I always lied about my age. I failed to keep dates. Yeah you’re right. You’re right. I was older than I thought I was. So anyway. What year am I talking about, what am I talking about now? When I came here? I came to San Francisco, I don’t know. Ok. You may be right. What year was I in the civil rights movement? Yeah exactly, it was ’64, ’65. Well everything runs together, man. I been lying about my age all my life. And it confused me. So I was an old man when I came here. Well those were the days for sure.

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My Mother Was Worried

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Nobody wants to hang around the south, you always want to leave. As far as I was concerned, whenever you had an opportunity, you wanted to leave. So I told my mother I was leaving. She said, “Be careful. Who do you know there? You don’t know anybody there. What you gonna do?”

She was overly cautious and worried about everything. I said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m not going to fall off the face of the earth. Anybody’s there eating, I’m going to eat too.”

I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know a soul. I really felt that, how could I die? I’m not going to rob anyone, I’m not going to do anything to anybody. If I could live on the street, that’s what I’m going to do. I said, “I’m going to survive.” I had that kind of confidence. My brother Ted dropped me off at the Greyhound bus station in Los Angeles. His orders were to report to the Air Force base. I thought that Los Angeles was too much competition, too much hustle and bustle. I would have a hard time finding a place to stay and finding a job. So I looked at a map and said, “Why don’t I just go to San Francisco?”

Just like that and I jumped on the bus for San Francisco. When I got there, the first thing I did was find a place to stay. I went to the Greyhound bus station to find out if there’s any rooming houses. YMCA was not too far away and there was a room.

They used to have pay phones in the individual rooms. I’m laying in bed on the first night and the phone rang. The guy said, “You’re Lawrence Carter?”

I was caught off guard. So I said, “I’m Lawrence Carter.”

He said, “You have a such and such car?”

I said, “Oh no, I don’t have a car.”

He’s asking questions. “Where you coming from? How long you been here?” These types of questions. I had nothing to hide. But he didn’t believe my story. He said, “Well where were you yesterday?”

I said, “I don’t know. I was driving out here with my brother.”

He wasn’t really buying my story. He invited me to come down to the police station in San Francisco to meet with him. Because what it was, was that somebody named Lawrence Carter was in possession of an automobile that he was driving across country. This is all true! He was driving across country and I think he left it in Utah or something like that. Someplace I’ve never been. So he just wanted to come down and have a talk with me. And I went down and he kept asking me, “Well nobody knows you’re here?”

And I said my mother knows I’m here. So he asked for my mother’s name. I wouldn’t give it to him. He asked where she lives and what’s her telephone number. I wouldn’t give it to him because when I left home, my mother was worried. So I wouldn’t divulge any information about her. I didn’t want a cop calling her and saying that I was in the police station. She would die. So I didn’t give him any information. But we had a long talk. And I think he bought my story. I told him, my mother will worry to death. So I went back and got my room, and everything was cool. I was hoping my phone wouldn’t ring again.

It was a coincidence. It had to have been. Nobody knew that I was going to San Francisco to be able to give him that information. It was just the luck of the draw that he happened to call, and he didn’t believe it himself; he didn’t believe the coincidence. But it was. It’s crazy! I know! I’ve been mistaken for other people before. But nothing like that. I think I convinced him because I was like I can’t let you call my mother. I gave him all the information I could give him, but I couldn’t divulge that because I know my mother, she probably would have had a heart attack.

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We Made Eye Contact

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Since I was dropping the 411 on everybody, I thought I’d drop it on you, give you what I have about you. We’ll start when you were born. I was there, I was in the room. Before the doctor even spanked your bottom; he held you up and you weren’t crying. You know what you were doing? Looking around the room. And then you looked over at me and gave me a very hard look. And I said, “wow.” In fact, the look you gave me was so hard, I looked away. Then the doctor cracked your bottom and you hit soprano. That showed me you were ok, you were alive, you were healthy. When you looked at me, we made eye contact. And that was the experience I had with you throughout your childhood, how alert and observant you were.

When you started school, I used to drop you off. You remember how Parkside was? It had this great big picture window. Before you entered, you could look into the classroom. And when I dropped you off before I left, I would stand and look into the classroom to observe you. And you know what you would be doing? Looking around the room observing everybody else. A lot of the kids would be running around and playing, but you’d sit still and watch everybody who entered the room. I found it fascinating that you were observant. I said, I can’t wait for you to grow up so I could see what you’re going to be like.

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I’m One of the Lucky Ones (Mom’s Story)

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My first memory of your Dad is seeing him in the office at Certified Temporary Personnel on a Friday afternoon. I was the receptionist and gave out the paychecks. Something about him caught my interest. Every Friday when he got paid, he picked up his dry cleaning. I can see it almost as clearly as the day he did it. Him walking in there with a dry cleaning hanger with his pants and shirts over his shoulder. Since you’re asking about the first time, I have to admit I asked him about his first memory of me. He said he thought I was married because I had a couple pictures on my desk of little kids. It was my nieces and nephew.

At that point I was getting ready to move to Hermosa Beach. Larry eventually got a permanent job with CMA (California Medical Association). I stayed down in Los Angeles about seven or eight months and came back up to San Francisco. I went to work for Certified as a temp this time around and at some point I was given an assignment at CMA. There was an Eppler’s Bakery one or two doors over on Market Street and I went in there for coffee before I started my new job. Your Dad was in there getting a small coffee and an old fashioned plain donut which he got pretty much everyday. We recognized each other and we talked for a little bit. I told him I was going to be working in that office. It was the start of us getting to know each other.

I told him I played tennis. I’m sure I didn’t tell him I played it good, but he didn’t realize how badly I played it. We went out and played tennis a couple times and it was evident he was a good tennis player and I was a bad one. But it was fun. We started having lunch together. One day he was coming up from BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) on Market Street and 4th and I was coming down Market Street and we looked at each other and our faces just lit up and that started it. We wanted to be together.

I went over to his house for dinner and I was very very nervous. He had fixed the most incredible dinner with fish and he set the table nice and he came to the door with a scarf around his neck. We told each other our life stories. I was shy; not a big dater. And I just knew. I was comfortable with him and I just knew it was going to go somewhere.

It’s a past life, but the initial memories are still strong. I love the fact that I met and fell in love with your Dad. I’m one of the lucky ones.

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