Tomatoes, with little tomato seeds, and tomato flesh dripping with tomato juice. Growing up, my grandmother and my mother were always exchanging tomatoes. Tomatoes that they either grew, or found at local farmer’s markets. They would give these tomatoes to family members, friends, co-workers, and each other. Although, the conversation you’re about to read has nothing to do with tomatoes. The conversation you’re about to read has everything to do with closed objects, restricted audio tapes(1), lesbian mothers, and custody trials during the 1980s. In the 1980s, my grandmother left her second husband to live alone in her own home, after her children had grown. In the 1980s, my mother graduated from high school, studied medical assisting and married my father. She also gave birth to my brother and then to me. My mother would later divorce my father in the 1990s, the same time she began working nights for the United States Postal Service.
About a month ago, Marti Clemmons [an archivist, now friend and collaborator, who I met through my research assistant position with Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice Archive] shared with me a collection of restricted audio tapes. I wasn’t able to listen to them, but I was able to look at them in a box. These audio tapes were given to Portland State University’s archive from the feminist bookstore, In Other Words, after it closed a few years ago.(2) The tapes contained personal accounts of lesbian mothers in the midst of custody trials during the early 1980s. Their husbands or ex-husbands didn’t want the women to have custody of their children because of their sexual orientation.
Having history as a single mom, who has had my own experience with lawyers, guardian ad litems, counselors, and such, I’ve developed a personal interest in post-separation abuse, coupled with the use of family court as a tool for abuse. Marti, being a queer single parent, has their own immense connection to the tapes. I told Marti that I would do whatever I could to help find the women on these tapes— to ask for permission to share their stories. We ended up locating a Gilah Tenenbaum. Gilah is a retired lawyer who was recorded on one of the tapes. Gilah doesn’t have children, but was active during the time of these trials and very much a part of the lesbian community in Multnomah County, Oregon. I reached out to Gilah and asked if she knew anything about the audio tapes. Maybe she could help Marti and I locate the people on the tapes so that we could get their permission to share these recorded stories. Marti had digitized the audio tape that Gilah was on.(3) We planned to meet with Gilah over Zoom while Marti was at the university’s archives so we could have her listen to the recording. Unfortunately, at the time of the meeting— as it goes with the life of parents— Marti was stuck at home caring for a sick child, so we weren’t able to listen to the recording. The closedness of the tapes, the remaining lack of access to the actual content of the tapes, adds more power to them.(4) And, consequently, for me, added more meaning to our dialogue about them. My hope is to document a succession of conversations in relation to these tapes from In Other Words, as we move through the process of searching for the people who are recorded on them. The following is the conversation of our first meeting, between the three of us: (Marti, Gilah, and myself).
Rebecca Copper: Marti, if you don’t mind going over some of the things you do and maybe give some context for these tapes, that might be a good introduction.
Marti Clemmons: Yeah, I work in the Special Collections and University Archives at Portland State University. I’ve been there for nearly 12 years, off and on. Now, full-time as an Archives Technician. I process a lot of the collections: I look through things, I throw away the things that don’t have significant historical context. I get collections ready for the researcher, or the user— patrons, students. We acquired a collection a few years ago from In Other Words, a feminist bookstore and collective. They were located in Northeast Portland. I think it was about five boxes. One of these boxes, it was offset, was a collection of about 70 cassette tapes. The custody tapes were of mothers who came out in ‘81— well, probably came out before that, but a lot of the tapes are labeled from 1981, 1982, and 1983— mothers that came out to their husbands, and therefore, their husbands took them to court for custody of their children. So, lesbian custody tapes, I guess is a broader way to describe them. I’ve only been able to listen to a few of them, they aren’t digitized. The only information on the tapes is a name and a date, sometimes initials. There’s no release forms. There’s nothing else.
Gilah Tenenbaum: Is there a name of an interviewer or an interviewee?
Marti: Usually, it’s just the interviewee. A lot of the time on the cassette tape, it might just have initials. I’ve noticed a few that have the same initials. Some of these tapes also take place in Los Angeles. I don’t know what that connection is, either. In an oral tradition or practice, the interviewer would state their name, who they’re interviewing, place, date and so on. I haven’t been able to listen to all these tapes, so some might say the names as they’re introducing. I know on your recording, specifically, it gets cut off, the interviewer’s name gets cut off.
I don’t think Rebecca told you yet— I think I recognize the other voice, the interviewer, which is even stranger. I took an oral history capstone class, from a person named Pat Young, who is a historian in Portland [Oregon]. I swear it’s her voice, but I haven’t made that confirmation. She has a very specific laugh, and it would make sense that she would be doing these tapes. I know that she did have some connection with, I think, Katharine Williams, who’s also mentioned on the tape.
Rebecca: Gilah, there is a Katharine that you mentioned. You said I should reach out to Katharine English. Is that right?
Gilah: She was one of the first, if not the first attorney, to win a lesbian custody case in Multnomah County. She educated the judges, she really put in a lot of effort. It came to be that you could go to court in Multnomah County, and you weren’t going to lose just because you were a lesbian. This was a long time ago, but I think the circuit court generally, in Multnomah County, not just this one judge, came around to deal with these cases the same way, whether or not they personally approved.
Marti: I’ve listened to bits and pieces of your interview and I’m sorry that I’m not at work, I had planned to share a snippet with you— but, you do mention different judges, and just the way that it works. How you would walk in, almost having to expect to lose. I feel like these women, you know, with every inch of their being, they wanted to fight for the custody of their kids. Going into court, it’s traumatizing and scary. And, on this recording, you had a lot to say about that and the different judges, not necessarily by name, but what to expect.
Rebecca: Marti is at home with a sick child. That’s why we can’t share the tape you’re on, we totally planned to have audio for you to hear.
Gilah: I was looking forward to it.
Rebecca: It’ll happen, though. I’m sure we’ll get it to happen at some point.
Marti: The recording is about an hour and fifteen minutes, it’s a long conversation. The snippets of the other tapes that I’ve listened to, it’s devastating. It’s their life stories and what they’re trying to accomplish while going through court. It’s really nice to have your tape. Not as someone who is going through a custody battle, but someone who has a different, outside perspective. I think you say on the tape that you were also community support during this time, so it was affecting you as well.
Rebecca: Gilah, you were just talking about how you weren’t sure how much insight you’d be able to give, considering that you weren’t a mom going through one of these cases. But you were a lawyer, you were a lesbian, and part of the communty. Because I’ve been through court custody-processes myself, when Marti showed me these tapes I was interested in the conversation about family court used as a form of abuse or control. So, there’s that way that I connect to the tapes. I wasn’t born until 1989. I wasn’t even alive when these tapes were recorded. But, you were the name Marti had. Then, I tracked you down. And you were there, you were physically there. To me, it’s valuable how the three of us are connected to these tapes. Also, how some of what was happening in 1981, is essentially, in some ways, still happening today.
Gilah: Oh, yeah.
Rebecca: I was hoping that maybe we could connect in a dialogue over that and maybe some of your experiences. I don’t have any prepared questions.
Gilah: I’m happy to help in any way I can, given all the caveats, you know. I have a vague memory– really vague. Maybe I even created the memory once we started talking; that I was once involved in something with interviews, but you know, I don’t remember a whole lot.
Rebecca: What do you remember?
Gilah: Just that it happened. Not any specific incident. I’m trying to think if I was in a conversation with Pat Young. Was she in a position of having to go through this? Or, were she and I talking as people who were providing support?
Marti: She was in the position… I’m going to pull up my email… Actually I think it is Katharine English, not Williams, now that I’m thinking about it. Let me just pull this up really quick. There are records that say that Pat was working with and doing this type of oral history interviews during that time.
Gilah: And she spoke about Katharine English?
Marti: I’m going to pull my email up, really quick. I remember asking Pat about this a couple years ago. She didn’t say whether she remembers or not, she deferred the question. I am trying to pull that email, I have to scroll because it was a couple of years ago. [laughter]
Gilah: While you’re doing that, Rebecca, how did you find me? It shouldn’t have been hard.
Rebecca: Um, yeah, no. It took me maybe a few hours on the internet. I learned, weirdly, quite a bit by googling your name. Actually, I forgot about this really cool thing I wanted to share with you. I got this booklet titled, Divorce. I printed it out through Google Books, which I didn’t know you could do, but it’s a collection of court documents and articles on divorce and its impact on children. There was a committee held in Washington, DC by the House of Representatives on June 19th, 1986.
Gilah: Is it a collection of essays?
Rebecca: It’s like court documents. But, your name is in this, you submitted a letter to a representative opposing joint custody. I have it highlighted somewhere. It was wild to find this and then be able to print it in a book; to learn there was a committee the House of Representatives created to discuss this topic in Washington D.C in 1986. As I was searching for you, I found that. I was led to your contact information through the Women’s Lawyer Group of Oregon. They connected me to the Oregon State Bar who gave me your email and your telephone number.
Gilah: I tried to look up Katharine English through the Oregon State Bar. I didn’t know if there was a section for retired or inactive members. I resigned from the bar after I had been retired for I don’t know, three or four years— it just didn’t really make any sense to keep paying that money and I wasn’t practicing. I thought maybe I could find Katharine for you through them. But, I wasn’t able to. I don’t remember if Cindy Barrett was involved, but she’s an attorney. She’s now inactive. She certainly would have known what was going on and might have been involved at the time.
Marti: There was a Cindy in this email I’m looking for, Cindy Comfer.(5)
Gilah: Oh, Cindy Comfer! Oh, sure! I haven’t seen her in years. Yeah, Cindy probably worked on cases, maybe even with Katharine.
Marti: I found the email. Pat said, “I will forward your email to Cindy Comfer, who was a lawyer, retired now and did many custody cases along with Katharine English.”
Gilah: So, my memory is reasonably still there! [laughter]
Marti: Cindy wrote me back. This is from 2019. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything about these tapes. I remember Joanna from In Other Words. I did some lesbian custody work in the latter 1970s in the 1980s. But, I don’t know anything about these tapes.”
Gilah: Joanna? Did she give a last name?
Marti: Brenner? Yeah, she’s the one that started In Other Words and was active as a professor. I think she may have even started the Women Gender Sexuality Studies Department at Portland State [University]. But, that was the last time I looked into this. I was like, “Okay, you don’t remember.” And, I had so many other things to do in the archives. I got really excited… but…
Gilah: It’s possible that she knows how to contact Katharine English. She might be one of the last people that has kept up with Katharine. All I remember is that Katharine moved back to Utah. She was from Utah, originally. I think she was from a Mormon family. I don’t think she had anything to do with them. I don’t think they accepted her.
Rebecca: What was it like in the ‘80s, as a witness to lesbian mothers going through custody battles? I mean, would you be willing to share what that was like? No pressure by any means.
Gilah: I have a few memories I can share, not tied to specific women. These cases didn’t always come up in the context of a divorce. For example, I remember that there were women who specifically did not live with their partners, to try and keep it from the ex-husband. I remember there was a case one time where the woman got custody, but a condition was that her lover couldn’t live with her and wasn’t really allowed contact with her children. I don’t know if it was in the early 80s or the late 70s, I graduated law school in ’78. I remember that we heard stories all the time about women around the country who were losing their children, so we sent money. Those of us that could help pay for lawyers. It was just crazy. You know, just misogynist, homophobia.
Marti: Did you have that same experience, Rebecca? Well, I mean, you don’t have to go into detail. Did you deal with a lot of misogyny in court?
Gilah: I would highly recommend that documentary that I told you about, Nuclear Family. It shows a lot of what went on. I remembered when I was watching it, that the women couldn’t be married at the time. It was before there was any legalized gay marriage. That the non-biological mother was not allowed to have anything to do with these discussions. She couldn’t even go into the courtroom. She couldn’t be there for support for her partner. She was just left out as if she didn’t count, which is the same thing that often happened and probably still does. Like, when somebody dies, and their “blood” family comes along and says, “Well, I don’t care if you lived with them for 25 years…” and just completely excludes the partner from any kind of closure rights, whether property or whatever.
Marti: Yeah, when my eldest was born, she’s seven now, there was that fear, What if I don’t have full parental rights, just because I’m not the biological mother? Times are different [now]. Hearing this is just like— that could have been me, 20 years, 40 years ago. I ended up adopting my kids. That’s how I have full parental rights. There are ways around it now.
Rebecca: Even though federally, gay marriage is legalized, there’s still a lot of shit– excuse my language– happening in terms of rights. I’m thinking about conservative states and how much bias can play into a judge ruling.
Gilah: There was at least one time that I remember where a woman moved from somewhere else in Oregon, to Multnomah County. So, when things went to court, it would be in Multnomah County because things were clearly better here.
Marti: I mean, I’m sure that there were cases like that, with people moving elsewhere to get a fair trial, or something close to a fair trial. Yeah, you mentioned [in the recording] that people actually did do that. Wow.
Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a lot. I’m in Ohio, currently, because I can’t pick up my kid and move without money to pay for a lawyer, court fees, etc. And, even then it’s not guaranteed that the judge would rule in my favor. I would have to go through the process; start a motion to move elsewhere and prove that it would be in my son’s best interest. With moving elsewhere to get a fair trial, to even do that is difficult in and of itself. Which makes me think of mutual aid and support. It seems that there is a resurgence in that kind of community-based support.
Gilah: Just from the little that I’ve seen, it is coming back, the sense of a lesbian community is coming back around. Things have changed so much with the greater acceptance of people being gay or trans, however they identify. It’s on people’s minds more than it was in the past. I mean, with the whole craziness that’s going on with abortion, there are national, regional, and local groups that are raising money to help women pay for abortions. I don’t know if there was anything like that back then. I remember giving money, but the money was just funneled through the woman or through her attorney. I don’t remember there being any, or I didn’t know of [any]organizations that were specifically for that purpose.
Something I mentioned in our last email exchange is the Community Law Project. I’ve been trying to remember where it is, this yellowing copy of a 50 page book that was titled something like, Know Your Rights. It had chapters written by different attorneys, and I wrote something in it. [Laughter] I don’t remember what, but I know I have it. I saw it when I was cleaning out some stuff not long ago. There might be something of interest to you there. So I will keep looking for it.
Rebecca: Oh, cool! Thank you! Did the bookstore, In Other Words, close down recently? Like a couple years ago?
Gilah: Yeah. 2018, maybe ‘19?
Rebecca: Do either of you know why it closed down? Was it financial?
Gilah: I remember there being fundraisers more than once, to help keep it going. I think it was just not enough financial support from the community. I was trying to remember where the store was before it was on Killingsworth.
Marti: I think it was on Hawthorne?
Gilah: I didn’t go in there a lot when it was on Killingsworth [Avenue]. I did once in a while. I donated books to them and money; it was also a meeting space, and a safe space for people. I think [the reason] was just basically money, though.
Rebecca: Would you mind telling me a little more about In Other Words? I’ve actually never been there.
Marti: Yeah, it was in the Hawthorne District, originally. I only went into the Killingsworth location. It was small, you walk in, there’s a huge open area, like a gathering spot, lots of readings, lots of music, a lending library. It just felt like a safe space. I moved here from New York, where I went to Bluestockings Bookstore. It was nice to have the same type of vibe, energy and events to get connected, having moved here to Portland and not knowing anyone in the queer community, and going there and just being one with my people. I would always go there because there was a little music venue next door. If you didn’t like the band that was playing, you would just go to In Other Words and hang out. Yeah, I think it was just about the vibe and having a space that felt good.
Gilah: There was a place— I moved here in ’75, for the gay community— it was Mountain Moving Cafe. It was a cafe open for all, but it was known especially as a safe space for gays and lesbians. That closed and that was a real loss.
Marti: Yeah, I’ve come across that name many times in multiple archives. It’s like one of those places, where you think, Ahh, why can’t I time travel? That place just seemed so cool.
Gilah: It was.
Marti: There’s also the aspect with Portlandia, the show that filmed in In Other Words. I know that started off as a good connection, but it ruptured as they kept filming. There with little to no monetary support. And [the show] kind of made fun of, you know, us in the community. That left a bad taste.
Rebecca: Gilah, I was wondering about your position as a lawyer in all of it. With your expertise as a lawyer, in a courtroom, watching as women went through such a process, and understanding the biases of the judges. I’m curious, was there anything that stood out as unconstitutional, or unlawful, for example, that you saw or that you can remember?
Gilah: I don’t remember there being anything unconstitutional. I think there was a lot of white male privilege, assumptions and ignorance about anything to do with gender or sexuality issues.
Rebecca: What would be their [the judges and opposing lawyers’] reason to prevent a gay woman from having custody of her children?
Gilah: Well, that homosexuality was a sin, and illegal in some contexts. They didn’t want the children to be influenced by this. Also that children need a mother and a father. If the children saw two women being affectionate or holding hands, it was not good for the children. The standard is always, What is in the best interest of the children? Under that rubric, lawyers can argue whatever they want, and as you pointed out earlier, they would tear women apart. “Did you have a shoplifting conviction when you were 16?” I mean, so, what?! They would pull out anything they could. “How many times have you moved in the last five years?” Or, whatever, really. I can’t say there was anything really “unconstitutional” other than white male interpretation of the Constitution. You know, all “men” are created equal.
I did some domestic relations. Most of the cases that I handled were settled out of court. And, I did some writing on the way you protected yourself, as a gay person— as a gay person with a partner, or without a partner for that matter, In those days you had to have lots of documents. You had contracts between you and your partner about what would happen if one of you died. Because you couldn’t be married, you couldn’t get any of those assumptions or benefits. I helped people come up with living-together agreements. Like, wills and other contracts or documents to protect their rights, vis-a-vis each other: What’s going to happen if we break up?I was the one that had the money for the down payment. Yeah, but I was the one that was bringing in the monthly income. My theory was always, yes, it’s unpleasant to put one of these agreements together, but it’s going to force you to confront your issues, and to resolve them while you’re still totally in love with each other. That’s the kind of legal stuff that I was mostly doing during that time.
Gilah: I think I just remembered a judge’s name that Katherine worked on. I think it was Harlow, H-A-R-L-O-W, Lennon, L-E-N-N-O N. I’m going to double check that on my computer to see if he’s who I’m remembering. I would hate to be giving you the totally wrong name just because I happen to remember one of the judges.
Marti: Yeah, I really appreciate that. I feel like I remember you saying that name in the recording. I want to do this again, when I’m at my desk. I really do. I need to figure out if it’s Pat Young, first of all. Then, go forward with that. I don’t want to play something that no one has given permission to play.
Rebecca: Gilah, originally I was thinking we could give you a list of names to see if you recognized anyone, but we can’t actually provide a list. The archive can’t even give out names without signed release forms. Is there a way to work backwards? Like, if you think anyone you know could be on the tapes, could we check that name against the list from the tapes?
Marti: Unfortunately, that’s where we’re at, that’s the only way. [laughter]
Rebecca: I know you said you might recognize some of the names, if you saw them?
Gilah: Yeah. Oh, I might well recognize a name, but that’s not the same as coming up with it on my own. [laughter]
Marti: No pressure! [laughter]
Gilah: Offhand, I can’t think of any friends or even acquaintances who went through that. I think Katharine English had. Other than her, nobody comes to mind. It’s interesting. Katharine, physically, is a very small woman. I don’t think she’s more than five feet tall, but she’s feisty as the day is long. Articulate, and so on. I’m sure she had things to fight just because she was small in stature. It’s hard enough to get taken seriously as a woman.
Rebecca: Yeah, and I really appreciate that name, Katharine English. I’ll make sure to work with Marti, to see if we can locate her.
Marti: Yeah, and Cindy Comfer. I have a connection with that, too. I’ll shoot Pat and Cindy an email.
Rebecca: It’s 7:32pm [EST]. I know, Marti, you have to go?
Marti: Yeah, to pick up the other kid.
Rebecca: I hope Ansel feels better.
Marti: You know how it goes. [laughter] Gilah, it was nice to meet you.
Marti: Let’s chat again soon.
(1) The audio tapes are restricted because there are no signed consent or release forms on record.
(2) In Other Words was a Portland Oregon feminist community center and bookstore and was featured in several episodes of the Netflix comedy series, Portlandia.
(3) Due to the age of the tapes, they are digitized to prevent further wear and tear on the tapes from being listened to repeatedly.
(4) In a conversation with artist Lucia Monge, Lucia pointed out the power of a closed object.
(5) Mentioned in an email from Pat Young to Marti Clemmons as someone who may be connected with the tapes
(6) Redacted text
(7) Redacted text
Rebecca Copper (she/her) is currently a graduate candidate at Portland State University, through the Art + Social Practice MFA Program, where she worked in 2020 as a research assistant for Portland State University’s Art + Social Practice Archive. Rebecca’s work centers on ontology; how our being and perceptions of reality exist against one another. And, how that reality is mediated, dictated back to us in varying forms. She is deeply invested in vast inversion of imperial/masculine archetypes, power dynamics, and ideologies. And, the reduction of hyper categorical, industrialized research.
Marti Clemmons (they/them) is an Archives Technician at Portland State University’s Special Collections and University Archives located in the Millar Library and previously worked as the Archivist for KBOO Radio. They are interested in using archives as a place for Queer activism.
Gilah Tenenbaum (she/her) was born and raised near Boston. B.A. Government and Political Science, Boston University, 1970; J.D. Northwestern School of Law of Lewis and Clark College, Member Cornelius Honor Society and recipient of the first World Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Progress of Women’s Rights Through Law, 1978. Admitted to Oregon State Bar 1978.
Social Practice creates a unique/nagging/obligatory need/opportunity/desire to investigate/create/document the places where people are making connections. Recently for me, this has melded with my interest in vintage aesthetics, pre-internet mediation, and self-initiated institutions. Zooming out from this mess of ideas and influences, I started to see a shape forming, and that shape was of a fan club. It’s the perfect intersection of ephemera, human interaction, rules and devotion. I started to research fan clubs that had been around a long time, long enough to still have a bit of a pre-internet history, and was pleased to find that the Guiness Book of World Records’ longest running fan club was The International Club Crosby. The club was started by fans of Bing Crosby in 1936 and is still around today.
I was enamored by their website and particularly struck by the availability of the leadership’s contact information. There were people seemingly ready and willing to talk about the club and Crosby himself. It was a contrast from the way that many websites can feel like a barrier to talking directly to a real person (afterall, isn’t an FAQ page just a plea to not call and ask questions?). I contacted the American Vice President of the club, Perry Huntoon, who agreed to talk to me on the phone, and agreed again after I made a time zone mistake. What I found in talking with him was a personal bent toward fanaticism that reminded me of the way my own brain operates. I too am a completist, but for me this tendency has often felt isolating. In Mr. Huntoon, I saw the opportunity for special interest to become a point of connection.
Caryn Aasness: Could you tell me a little bit about Bing Crosby?
Perry Huntoon: A little bit about Bing you say? Okay. Sure. He was basically the Entertainer of the first part of the first half of the 20th century. He did it all, you know –superstar, he was big on the radio, big in the movies. And he was, far and away, the best selling record singer of the time up until probably the time of Elvis, when the rock age came in and changed music so dramatically. But he was also big in the war effort. He was very dedicated to helping out in any way he could. He was too old to be in the service, but did the USO [United Service Organizations] thing.
It’s an amazing story, but he discovered the use of the microphone. That’s what made him so popular and before his time. People were using megaphones or whatever they did. The electric microphone just wasn’t in existence. He knew how to use it. It changed the whole style of popular singing back in the 1920s. Instead of shouting to an audience, like you might hear in an opera setting or whatever, he could hold that microphone up and croon to the audience, if you will. That captivated the world and changed the entire style of male singing. Almost every singer that came along after him in that popular vein took after his style. People forget, they don’t think of him as a movie star. Especially because I think when you go back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, you think of the Clark Gables, the Cary Grants, the Jimmy Stewarts, people like that. But in the second half of the 1940s Bing was the biggest artist in the movies. He was number one at the box office for five or six years in a row. But of course he was singing in the movies. He wasn’t particularly thought of as a great actor, but he did get an Academy Award in 1944 and was nominated again in the 50s. So you know, he had a lot of talents. But the singing is what people remember today. I’m afraid that in today’s age, what they remember best are the Christmas songs because Christmas is in the background, but he was far beyond that. He could handle almost any style— pop stuff, jazz-oriented, Irish songs, old songs from the early part of the 20th century. He could even sing in Spanish or French if he had to. He could do everything and that’s why he had worldwide popularity, he sold a lot of records. He was a comedian too, he teamed up with Bob Hope, on the “Road” pictures(1). They were spectacularly successful. And he could ad lib. He could just speak off the top of his head, make it work— audiences loved it. It was just wonderful.
He was also a technological innovator; he decided after World War II he didn’t want to do live radio. He wanted to do it on tape where they could edit it. He’s the one that basically brought the use of tape to this country. The Germans had developed it, and he brought that to America and that became the industry standard in the later 40s. So performers didn’t have to go on live and worry that they made a mistake or go to a recording studio and cut a record and have to redo it because something got goofed up. You could cut and splice from that, it revolutionized the whole industry. So that’s a brief nutshell.
Caryn: How did you come to know about him? What’s your earliest memory of Crosby?
Perry: I came of age musically, when I was 15. Okay, probably late by today’s standards. A little behind the curve. And at that time, I’m talking 1953, he was still played a lot on the radio. Most top stations would have an hour or half hour devoted to Bing Crosby, I can remember listening to pop music on New York radio stations. From 5:30 to 6:00 on one station, that was Bing Crosby time. My older relatives had Bing Crosby records. I would hear them when I went to their homes, so it was kind of ingrained in me. I just realized this guy had the greatest voice ever. I just took right to it. Everybody was talking about Elvis or the Beatles. I was embarrassed to talk about Bing Crosby, it made me an old fogey living in the past. Now I’m kind of proud of it, you know? I have nothing to be ashamed of.
Caryn: When did you become a member of the club?
Perry: In the mid nineties. I don’t know how much you know about the club, but it originated here in the United States in 1936. Club Crosby, it was called, and that’s the club I joined in the 90s and then I found out almost immediately there was a twin club in England: The International Club Crosby. About two years later I joined that also, because they were publishing things that I was interested in— discographies, glossy magazines and things like that. And then about 2001, the two clubs merged. So we have one now: it’s the International Club Crosby, that’s the survivor, and we date back, as I say, to about 1936. It’s in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest standing fan club in the world.
Caryn: Yeah, that’s pretty amazing. How did you become part of the leadership?
Perry: Well, first I was just an innocent member doing nothing. They had an annual meeting in Leeds, England. I always wanted to attend one. And finally in 2009, I had a major trip planned and I tied that in, and I said Okay, I’m gonna go over there. That’s how I got to meet some of the people. I thought it would be a one time event, but as it turned out, I liked it so well, I went back every year. Then I started giving presentations there every year. We had an American representative that handled things over here for many years, but he had an accident. He was unable to carry on all of his chores and one of the chores was distributing the magazine to the American members. They come over from England in bulk and then we have to separate out the issues into individual mailing envelopes and mail them out. Once he was incapable of that, I volunteered to do that and I’ve done that ever since. Then when he passed on, I just took over the whole shooting match over here, so to speak, and they wanted to call me the American Vice President. That’s where I am. The problem we have is, it’s an aging membership. Bing died in 1977. The memories are getting further and further back and younger people just aren’t aware of or don’t care about him because we’re in a different musical age. So we have an aging membership and a dwindling membership obviously. But they’re very spirited, they’re very enthusiastic. I’m as enthusiastic as I was when I was a teenager.
Caryn: Is there a part of the club that is dedicated towards basically evangelizing for Bing?
Perry: Well, Facebook is one way. There are several Facebook groups devoted to Bing Crosby and our president in England posts almost every day to those groups. And, of course, he promotes the club, offering a free copy of the magazine or a PDF file. I mean this American club started in ‘36, and it was mostly young girls. I don’t think they were called Bobby Soxers back then, but that’s what they were called in the 40s. You know, they just loved certain artists and formed fan clubs. They were just infatuated with the artists and our club kind of started that way too. But it evolved into something much more serious, it’s much more male-oriented now. And people, they’re true collectors, true lovers of music, and they just want to collect it all. It’s amazing. I collect the music, but people collect all sorts of memorabilia that they can find. Whatever they can find with his picture on it or old photographs, old magazines that devote themselves to Bing, whatever. It’s amazing what’s out there. Even ice cream brands, people still have boxes, empty boxes, I’m sure, of the ice cream. So they’re more enthusiastic about doing that than I am. I just want the music; it is my focus. I have a complete collection. He recorded over two thousand songs you know, I’ve got them all, plus a lot that he had only done on the radio or TV or whatever, live performances. So it adds up to a monstrous collection. I probably have close to one hundred Bing Crosby CDs out of my 3,000 disc collection, and they get played a lot.
Caryn: Interesting. So your collection is all on CD?
Perry: Yeah, I went from vinyl records to tape to CD and that’s as far as I can go. People say it’s better with mp3 and blah blah blah, all the streaming. I have too big a collection and I don’t have the time in my life to convert it now. Which is a problem. Cars no longer put a CD player in the car and I play CDs continually. If I jump in the car I pop a CD in. I have an old Sony Walkman and that’s what I take when I do my three mile walk every day and if those things collapse on me I’m dead in the water, so I just hope it holds up for a few more years and that I can buy one more new car that still has a CD player, then I’m happy.
Caryn: That’s the dream.
Perry: It’s just too late for me to make the transition to the new technology. I’m comfortable where I am.
Caryn: I think there’s something to be said about the physicality of a CD or tape or whatever it is. Having an object and having the liner notes, the booklet and everything.
Perry: Well, if they are commercially made, they have liner notes, yeah. In the old days we would buy albums that were 12 inches by 12 inches, so you could fill the back of an album cover with a lot of notes. And I thought, Boy, with a small CD, how do you do it? Well you do it with a booklet now. That works very nicely.
Caryn: Are there other celebrities or topics that you consider yourself to be a big fan of? Have you ever been part of other fan clubs?
Perry: Oh, I have a lot of interest. We have highway groups, right? Driving the old roads, interstates, that kind of thing. And I’m very active in the Jefferson Highway Association, which is an old route from Winnipeg all the way to New Orleans, or the Lincoln Highway Association from New York to San Francisco, and looking for remnants of the old highways— old motels and cafes, and so on, that are not the standard. Every exit now on the interstate has a McDonald’s or Burger King and KFC. No! The old mom and pop places are what we love! I’ve crisscrossed the country. All the US Highways from number one to 101, I want to go from the East Coast to the West Coast and from Canada to Mexico or the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve done them all. It takes a lot of years and a lot of miles, but it’s fun, and we have groups that thrive on that kind of thing. There’s all sorts of varying interests I have, but I think right now, music is what keeps me young. I love it. And I’m compulsive. I’m a completist, you know, when I like something, I want everything of it. When [I’m interested in] an artist, I want everything they ever did. I want to ride a highway, I want to ride it all. I’m just that way, so that’s why I have all Bing Crosby. I didn’t start out thinking I wanted all this stuff. It’s not all totally to my liking, because he did every type of music you can think of, but take it all together and it’s a wonderful panorama.
Caryn: Yeah, neat. What have you learned about Bing Crosby in the fan club that you don’t think you could have learned elsewhere?
Perry: I was focused primarily on the music, and I realized that many members of the club go far beyond that. Film was important to them. I was very casual about Bing Crosby’s movies. Now I have taken a much greater interest and there’s a historical value to it. You’re going back in time, you’re watching the evolution of an artist. That was big. His entertaining on the radio, which was mostly before my time… And I don’t care about their love affairs, marriages, and all that. But in Bing Crosby’s case, how instrumental he was for World War II, or how instrumental he was in the technology of pioneering tape. There was a lot of resistance to that when he did that. Kraft said, No, no, we have got to do the show live. He said, I’ll go to another network, and [so he went to] the Philco show, on a different network. Within two years, all networks fell into line and almost nothing was done live anymore. So those are fascinating things. Historically, quite a bit of interest, and that’s what you learn from interfacing with other people. Because they have their own focus, they can pick up on what they like and kind of run with it. It just broadens and deepens your interest. You kind of cling to each other after a while because not everybody out there enjoys what you do. So when you do you find a kindred spirit? Boy, it’s something a little bit special.
Caryn: So special!What do you think is the role of a fan club in 2021?
Perry: I have no idea if there are fan clubs today even comparable to what they were, because I don’t know the music scene today. I mean, music of today’s age, from really from the 60s on, I know nothing. I mean, I hear some of it, but I don’t care about it. I’m not an expert on it. But back in the pop music days, in the 50s, I can remember there were lots of fan clubs for different artists, mostly younger people. And it was just a form of adulation for the most part. Our fan club is more serious, but the intent is keeping the legacy alive. The number one thing they want to do is keep it alive. They want to publicize, for example, who Bing was– a really important guy and a wonderful singer, a wonderful entertainer, and spread the word. They want to get beyond the Christmas thing and say Hey, he’s good for all seasons.
I grew up on the cusp when rock just came in, you know. The biggest star of my high school senior year was Elvis Presley. And at that point I didn’t care a bit about Elvis Presley. Then, when the Beatles came a few years later, I went back in time and everybody else was moving forward. But the fan club serves the purpose by keeping the name alive. When Bing died, as opposed to when Frank Sinatra died, Bing’s family, his widow, couldn’t do much to keep that flame alive. Whereas the Sinatra people immediately took his name and capitalized on it, to keep it going, going going and twenty years ago. Oh my god, I could run around Chicago and there’s Frank Sinatra on jukeboxes— people are listening to him still, even when he’d been dead for years. That wasn’t so with Bing Crosby, and it was only much later that the estate finally realized they were missing the boat. There was a lot to capitalize on. Not that our club was the total instigator, but the fact that we existed and communicated with them and pushed the issues, I think that helped a lot. All of a sudden, they found archives that Bing had stored away. And they started making sure to do stuff with the public or they got a channel on the streaming audio systems, you know, so you can listen to Bing just like you can with Frank or Elvis. I think all that was a plus. So I think we served a little purpose. We’re here to publicize Bing Crosby and his work. To perpetuate that is our main interest in life and to enjoy it. I mean, whether it’s watching his old movies or putting on the records, in one form or another, that’s our purpose. To spread the joy, so to speak. That’s the main thing we care about.
Caryn: I know that there’s also been things written that have been pretty negative about parts of his life. I don’t necessarily expect you to speak to that, but I’m curious, what do you see a fan club’s role or a fan’s role when it comes to scandalous things or difficult issues in a person’s past?
Perry: Well, yeah, you know, like in Bing’s case, when he died in 1977, within a year, a pair of writers put out a book that absolutely tarnished, almost destroyed Bing’s reputation. The title of the book was, “The Hollow Man.” They were saying he wasn’t what the image of him was at all. They said he was terrible to his children, beat his children, blah, blah, blah, you know. And then his son, his oldest son wrote a book also and elaborated more on that. But he later retracted most of what he said. But those two books really were devastating to the image of Bing Crosby and I read those books and they just washed over me. I didn’t care what they said. I liked Bing for the talents he had and I didn’t care so much about his personal life. But I realized all of this was overstated, and Gary Giddins, the current biographer, has set the record straight on all that. But we do live in a different age today. My God, you know, I wasn’t beat with a strap, but I was sure spanked when I was a kid. Now you don’t even spank a child, let alone anything else. Times change. But I think Bing made up for it. He had a second family and all those kids idolized him, they kept the flame alive very nicely. But yeah, they’ve all grown up to be outstanding citizens as opposed to the four children from the first marriage. Two of them committed suicide, one turned into an alcoholic. It’s very sad to see it, but that’s the sordid side of his personal life. You know, every family has its bad side. Things became a little more public because of the two books that came out after he died. That very much hurt the image. People still refer to that, that he was a terrible father. Today they believe that because they read it once upon a time, and they don’t get dissuaded from it. None of which is true in my opinion. And I’m not an idolizer here, but I saw it for what it was.
Caryn: Okay, that’s interesting. You’re talking about all this information coming out and becoming public, whether or not it’s true about his life. How much information about a celebrity’s life do you feel like we’re entitled to as fans?
Perry: Well, you know, I think today, the internet age with all the cable channels and everything, people like to dig deeply. They go to the checkout counter in their store and see all the tabloid publications there that sensationalize everything. There’s a fair amount of the public that thrives on that. I can’t say that I do. Most of it is misinformation – and hyped up. But how many people are following Britney Spears’ problems, the conservatorship, and all that. I don’t, because Britney Spears means nothing to me. But there’s an element of our society that grew up with Britney. They thrive on all that stuff. I guess it’s been true throughout history. Except that it was a lot easier to hide more of that back in the day, you know, you didn’t have people on your back all the time and photographers chasing you around and all that kind of stuff. But it’s always been there. I pay little attention to it. I guess I could separate the talent the artist has versus their feelings. Elvis Presley for example, a wonderful artist, but my god there’s no reason for him to be dead at age 43. He let himself go and got bloated, got on pills, and whatever, this, that and the other thing, and it just crushed him. Does that change the image the public has? They still love him, they love him! You’re twenty?
Caryn: I’m 27.
Perry: You’re in a different musical world. And I wouldn’t expect you to know anything about the music of Bing Crosby. People almost my age don’t know more than White Christmas. They don’t remember all the big hits because they were too young.
Caryn: Yeah, I guess I know more about him as a performer, as an actor. One of my favorite movies is High Society, and I tell people about it all the time.
Perry: I have a son who is 45 and I brought him up listening to my music at a very young age. And he knew it, he would know Benny Goodman. He would know who Bing Crosby was or whatever. But by the time he was eight or nine he was drifting off into the world that he’s comfortable with and much to my chagrin, it’s heavy metal for him. Metallica, all those groups. We go out, I mean, I’ve been to some concerts with him and I walk out and I’m half deaf!
Caryn: Have you been to a Metallica concert?
Perry: No, I haven’t been. Not the biggest names, but more second tier groups. It was always puzzling to me to walk into an old movie theater and find all the seats have been ripped out. Nobody sits there. You’re just milling around, you could smell the marijuana in the background. But it’s loud. I could get a kick out of it just for the experience, but I’m not going to run out and go play the music on my own. Yeah, and even that music if it’s at a low decibel level in the background, it doesn’t bother me at all because when I go out to the bars, people are playing stuff on the music system. But if it gets too loud, if it gets in my way where I can’t have a conversation with somebody, I gotta get out. I can’t handle that. But my music was loud. Even my favorite big bands, they were loud. But they weren’t amplifying you know, they didn’t amp it up. Because, hey, the brass section can belt out that stuff! An amplified guitar can make a lot of noise. or a drummer that’s amplified. I can remember vividly when rock and roll first came in. I thought it would be gone in a year, because the year before it was the mambo craze and the mambo came and went. I thought rock and roll would do the same thing, and here I’m stuck with it the last 60 years. The early stuff I kind of enjoy, but I don’t care if I ever hear much of it. It bothered me when we’d go to a club with pounding music where you can’t talk. You can’t hear yourself talk and it’s all highly amplified guitars and a drummer. Oh, I got to hate that. Doesn’t anybody remember how to play the trumpet or trombone? But that’s me, and a lot of people my age feel the same way, I’m sure. You adapt to the times and you finally take it for granted.
Caryn: If someone was wanting to listen to some Bing Crosby or watch some Bing Crosby, what’s your number one recommendation? What’s the first thing they should watch or listen to?
Perry: I think there are two avenues. Number one: you can watch a film. Get a sense of him visually; I think that would be important. And a film like High Society would probably be an outstanding bet because it was a later picture, in color and very carefully staged, and if you got tired of Bing, you had Grace Kelly to look at. Or, go back earlier to get the comedy. I would advise them to watch one of the Bing Crosby Bob Hope Road pictures, specifically, The Road to Morocco. That would be a wonderful film. Considered the best. And they were a classic comedy team. But also musically, I would say to seek out a Best Of. The guy had 21 gold records, pretty good sellers. An album that comprises the best of those gives you a very good background of what he was about musically. If you like some of it better you can even veer off into different categories. I like the more swinging stuff. I like stuff where he’s backed by a bigger band, or a little bit jazz-oriented. That’s my cup of tea, but I can listen to it all. And of course, YouTube has all this stuff. I have been amazed at how I could fill out an artist’s repertoire by going on Youtube! I could find the songs that I didn’t actually physically have the record of. Having the toolkit of a computer, you can access all that stuff. It’s amazing. It’s all out there!
(1) The “Road” pictures were 7 comedy films starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby released between 1940 and 1962.
Caryn Aasness (they/them) has been club secretary in every club they have ever been a part of.
Perry Huntoon (he/him) is the American Vice President of The International Club Crosby.
“With regards to being paid to surf, it’s more meaningful and respected to work towards being accepted by and becoming a part of the group of locals, than to go pro and be paid to surf.”
– Tess from Maine
I used the $100 to pay Tess, a woman surfer from Maine, to go surfing for a week. This is a conceptual art project where we are both collaborators. I am claiming the action of her surfing for a week as an art project and I am supporting her as a woman surfer by paying her $100 to surf. Similar to the art world, women have been marginalized, underrepresented, and underpaid in surf culture. What form of work is being paid and who gets to be paid? What does it mean to get paid to surf? How does getting paid to surf shift your identity, power, and how you relate to others in a space? How does surf localism filter who deserves power?
Surf localism is what all of my previous artwork is about or was inspired by. It involves usually male surfers who claim a particular surfing spot on the beach as their own, and use power and intimidation tactics to assert their dominance at a place or surf break, filtering who belongs and who doesn’t belong in their space according to oftentimes contradictory or shifting prerequisites. This ties back again to the marginalization of women in surf spaces and colonial practices of white men owning space in the ocean.
I interviewed a person who I will name Tess to protect her identity. Tess is a local, but she is not seen as local by the locals because she does not fit credentials of being angry enough (towards people who live out of town) or other unknown and shifting credentials. She requested to be anonymous to protect her identity and safety in her local surf community. She also had a photographer take photos of her surfing to document the project, but was reluctant to share those photos to protect both her identity and safety, and her local surf spots in Maine. But she thinks it’s super important to have discussions on how surf localism affects personal identity, and that these conversations on surf localism should be made public. With her interest in sociology and different cultures, she had wanted to write about surf localism for a long time. Tess also wanted to mention her support of the women’s surf magazine I started, Sea Together, saying, “It makes women feel like they’re not alone in this man-dominated sport. Now we have our own community of people who also get us, when we all were previously the only woman in the group.”She removed things that she wouldn’t be comfortable having in this interview, like anything that could be perceived as negative by the localized surf spot locals. Tess wanted to add that “references to them being scary and defending the break is something the locals are proud of and something that further protects the break from being surfed by the people they don’t like. It scares people off.” She also ended with saying, “Feel free to use this feature as a way to advertise the rules of surfing.”
In the interview, Tess felt guilty for taking the money; not being paid to surf is seen as the proper way to go and she felt locals would not accept her taking the money. To me, this signifies that to Maine locals, money is power, and they do not want to feel threatened by someone else’s power—let alone a woman who is not a pro surfer. I
Brianna: So, how does it feel to be paid a hundred dollars to go surfing?
Tess: I would’ve done it for free. Donate this money to a good cause. Paying me to go surfing makes me feel uncomfortable.
Brianna: How do you feel about surfers that get sponsored to go surf?
Tess: Oh, well they’re selling their souls. Just kidding. I don’t know. I think getting paid to surf is generally thought of as a sign of making it or respect. And it is fun. I get fun out of surfing. I don’t know if they actually give you money unless you’re a pro.
Brianna: You mentioned respect. So do you feel like if you get paid to surf, people will respect you more?
Tess: I think in one sense or another, you have to kind of earn the right to be paid to surf, except in this instance.
So I think kind of along that path, you’ve gained respect from your surf cohort per se to get recognized on a local or regional or national level sponsorship or through private organizations.
Brianna: How do you feel about me paying you $100 to go surfing as an art collaboration?
Tess: I guess I can see how surfing is art. It is a fluid activity, where you also can’t really judge it. There’s no line drawn between different movements. No movement is done the same way for every person because everyone also has a different body and the way that they react to the wave.
Brianna: Do you feel like it’s similar to dancing or performance?
Tess: Yes. But also no. It is our bodies moving. But instead of our bodies dancing and dancing freely, when we surf, we are responding to the wave.
I guess you could say it’s a collaboration with the wave. Because without the wave, we couldn’t surf. And it depends on what the wave allows us to do on it.
Brianna: I guess it’s similar to art in that it is its own specific medium. Kind of like painting—oil paints only let you do certain things and they prevent you from doing other things with the paintbrush. Or acrylic paint, it dries faster.
How do you feel when people are watching you on the beach?
Tess: On the beach people are always watching the surfers. It’s like we are entertainment for people in a way. Or especially people who aren’t used to seeing surfers; they seem to be more enamored with it than anyone else.
Brianna: So do you feel supported specifically as a woman surfer in the surf community?
Tess: [Long, long pause] I believe that there are marginalized communities within the surf community, which is a subculture. Sometimes women and the elderly, regardless of their surfing abilities, have to prove themselves every single time they go out, even if it’s with the same group of people, to, I guess, earn the right to not be dropped in on. (1)
Brianna: Do you feel that this $100 is supporting you more?
Tess: I feel guilty taking the $100.
Brianna: Why do you feel guilty?
Tess: Because I don’t need to be paid to surf to feel like I’m getting the most out of surfing. I think being in the water is rewarding enough.
With regards to being paid to surf, it’s more meaningful and respected to work towards being accepted by and becoming a part of the group of locals, than to go pro and be paid to surf.
Brianna: Do you feel that you’ve been given the same opportunity as your male sibling in surfing?
Tess: Because I had an extremely supportive father and he had extremely high expectations of us regardless of our sex slash gender.
I was stepping into the same spots as my brother and had to face the same fears. I don’t know. My dad pushed the limits with both of us and didn’t baby either of us.
So in that sense, I had the same opportunities.
Brianna: Do you feel that you have been given the same respect at the localized surf break?
Tess: I don’t surf the localized surf break. So do you mean the same respect at the other break?
Tess: I feel the same necessity to protect our local spots. And I think by demonstrating that in the water, that would earn me respect if it was seen by the locals. Demonstrating that looks like being angry towards outsiders, being angry towards anyone who is not seen as a local, or yelling at people when perceived as needing to. According to the local culture, people need to be yelled at when they are not from here, or if they are doing anything that’s considered bad in the water, such as dropping in on someone, or if they are not surfing well, or if they fall.
I think my surfing earns me respect in the water. They eventually stopped dropping in on me. I don’t know.
But, I don’t think gaining respect is necessarily a habit from the get-go.
Brianna: Do you feel like they would be supportive of you being paid a hundred dollars for surfing?
Brianna: Why not?
Tess: I think they think they should’ve been paid a hundred dollars.
Brianna: Did it feel like work surfing for a week? Do you feel like you worked hard to earn the hundred by surfing?
I’m just really interested in people’s idea of work, what is worthy of being compensated as work.
Tess: I don’t know how to answer this. I mean like today, for example, I guess I was more willing to wake up early for dawn patrol (2) because I knew the session was going to be photographed. And I was surfing to get paid and we were going to have an interview. So I felt more of an obligation, slash there’s a chance I would not have woken up for dawn patrol if it wasn’t partially work.
If I wasn’t going to let you down, I’m not sure I would have had the willingness to wake up this morning.
So in that sense, I guess it was, I guess there was some feeling of, this is more like work.
I think any time you’re being photographed, it feels more like work. You have to kind of give everything that you’ve got to try to get good photos and get as many waves and do as much on each wave as you can, because a lot of your waves are going to be missed (by the photographer).
In contest surfing, when you’re surfing for a prize and there’s limited time, it definitely feels more like work. And I think sometimes, I get more energized in that situation. I’m less chill and more… not aggro, but like whatever it takes…I push myself harder than I normally would.
And I imagine that for pro surfers, everytime they go out, their job is essentially on the line. That would add a significant sense of responsibility and intensity and urgency.
If you have all the time, I think on some level you can risk your love for the sport. I just think there is a rejuvenating aspect of getting into the water without expectations.
Because I feel like, normally every time I get into the water, I never want to get out of the water. I never think, Oh, I wish I hadn’t gone surfing.
Brianna: I remember one day this guy was yelling at me and calling me stupid for protecting the puffins. And I went to surf after and it was crowded. And the same guy was in the water and in my way three waves in a row. I raised my voice a little bit and said, “If you need to paddle back out, you need to paddle around again.” And looking back, I just feel guilty about that. You know?
Cause other people saw me and maybe I thought, They’re thinking,Oh Bri isn’t being like her positive self, you know. I was trying to both stand up for myself and also educate this guy as he probably didn’t know what he was doing maybe.
Tess: And it’s a safety concern too.
Brianna: Totally. It is a safety concern. I guess there’s this discrepancy, which ties into surf culture. There’s people that think you can’t do that or say that (like what I said to educate the guy). And then there’s people that are like, Oh, that’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s like skiing. You can’t just go to a double diamond trail and think that you can do that if you’ve not reached that level before.
Also, sometimes I feel the pressure that I have to always smile and talk with everyone in the water. But, sometimes I want to just go and surf. Surfing is like a meditation for me.
I don’t want to have to say hi to everyone all the time.
Tess: I think I feel maybe the opposite end of that, where, I need to go out and be more aggro and just be super, super good. And when I’m having an off day, I just feel that I can’t justify being an asshole—not that I am an asshole on any level—but I can’t justify glaring at people ever. It’s hard to not only balance the part of that protective side of myself, the part that says I want to fit in as a local or I want to make the locals proud, but also go out there with no expectations, to have a good time and be happy. Which I feel like I end up surfing better in the latter situation anyways.
And then when people are actually being stupid and unsafe and, you know, ruining great waves for so many other people… Even if you’re nice to them, and you try and redirect them, I feel that they’re less likely to listen because you’re a woman and you just feel guilty about it afterwards.
Brianna: Yeah. I think there’s like this expectation, you know.
I try not to engage with new guys in the parking lot anymore, just because I don’t really want to deal with them trying to date me. And I know that’s not always the case, but I think I got kind of burnt out on that experience repeating itself many times in a short period. So now, sometimes I don’t say hi to random strangers and smile at them because I’m just tired of it, you know? There’s this expectation for women to always be super happy and smiley and give their energy to everyone, you know?
Tess: Yeah. That’s totally an expectation.
Brianna: But then if like a woman surfer is in the parking lot, and then she doesn’t say hi or anything, or just keeps to herself, then I feel like she’s seen as a bitch or something, you know, but men do that all the time. There are so many guy surfers I know that don’t say hi and they just keep to themselves.
Tess: Maybe it’s because I was always out with my dad and my brother. I don’t know. I would hate to talk to people. When I’m out surfing, I’m out to surf. I hate when someone’s talking to you and you feel this in the water, and the set is coming up, and you’re thinking, I need to reposition so that I can get this sick wave.
Brianna: So going back to localism. You were born here, but you mentioned before that you don’t see yourself as a local.
Tess: Guys are pissed at me and they just look like they’re fucking pissed because I’m longboarding. (3) So I’m sitting out on them and then getting the biggest wave set and then yelling at them if they try and go for my wave.
Tess: You definitely can’t just be born here [to be a local]. You have to have the talent [to be a local]. And then you also have… It’s like rushing a frat (to become a local).
You have to prove that you will defend the localized spot, and all of our spots from kooks and from tourists who come in and think that they just own shit because they’re a straight white male and they rent a surfboard, you know? And they’re fucking terrible idiot assholes.
You’d have to prove yourself in that sense too. The locals want you to be mean, you have to be mean when it might be deserved to protect the spot.
Brianna: And then you’re saying you’re only a local if you surf the localized spot, correct?
Tess: Yeah. And it’s just the guys who surf the localized spot, and sit at the beach at their locals-only spot and cheer for their homies, the other locals, and then just heckle everyone else.
Brianna: It’s like a game.
Tess: It’s 100% a game. No one knows who I am.
Brianna: Why don’t the locals know who you are if you were born and raised here and grew up surfing here?
Tess: No one knows who I am.
I feel like I’ve been hidden away or just cause I don’t surf the localized spot… There are the stories from everyone of the dangers socially and physically from surfing the localized surf spot. The rocks aren’t the most dangerous thing.
Brianna: So the people are?
Tess: Yeah, you could legitimately get the shit beat out of you.
And I know, as a girl, that’s not gonna happen, but anytime that someone is yelling in the surf, or even if they’re just talking loudly—because no one can hear with their hoods up—to their friends and joking around or whatever, I’m always scared that they’re yelling at me or telling me to get out of there. As if I don’t deserve to be there or something. And I think being at the localized surf spot, I know that they would yell at a girl. They still yell at you, but they probably won’t punch you as a girl.
Brianna: How did you feel surfing other spots in your home area?
Tess: I kind of just turned it into my own spot and try and earn my stripes, but obviously all the people at the other spots are a lot more chill and I feel like we’re just like a big family, you know, I love that.
In my general localized area though, there’s a hierarchy in the water. And if you don’t know who your senior is and you disrespect them, they’re going to do everything in their power to make you suffer. You don’t want to be the bad apple.
To wrap up this interview, I want to share a few quotes about localism from women surfers around the world from ISSUE 002 of Sea Together. You can check out Tara Ruttenberg’s article in ISSUE 002 of Sea Together, titled Does localism redress neocolonial privilege in Global South surfing destinations? You can read more on my work about surfing in my graduation publication; feel free to email me for a copy at email@example.com
– Brianna Ortega
“Localism to me is having emotional and physical ties to a given spot, after putting in the time to gain respect from others doing the same. Localism can be good by enforcing etiquette in the water, and by inspiring a love for coastal conservation in a given area. Localism can be bad when people use whatever reason they feel local as an excuse to simply be an asshole, as in acting above etiquette rather than leading by example.”
“I don’t see localism as a positive. But being a local and enjoying your break with others is awesome.”
“As someone who’s only been surfing for a few years, I’m still terrified of localism. Despite not having experienced any incidences so far, it’s always in the back of my head–especially as a girl who surfs by herself.”
“I’ve been a local and also traveled to places where localism was downright dangerous. Really the root feels like a call for ‘respect’ in the water. We can have a long talk about rules and etiquette, but in the end it’s about recognition and earned respect.”
“I’m ok with localism. It is a big part of the roots of surf culture and I don’t think it should die.”
“I believe localism is best used when it protects and betters the community. For instance, when ‘locals’ put pressure on individuals who disrespect said place and/or the people within it (i.e. stealing, harassing, urinating, and defecating in public areas, etc…).”
“As much as I despise the localism often displayed at surf breaks all over the world, I believe it’s a tricky topic. Localism should protect and better the community, and also not harm the environment. I’ve had many talks with Kala Alexander and other locals on the North Shore as well as in Maui, and while I don’t agree with how that localism is sometimes executed, I understand why they are protecting their breaks so harshly. It’s a fine balance. The professional surf industry has often chosen spots and put on contests without enough communication and involvement with the community, which leaves a sour aftertaste. They are now slowly addressing the problem and seem to act more responsibly. Some localism is unacceptable, and we’ve seen the results (even if it took a very long time) in our backyard not too long ago (Lunada Bay).”
“The only locals are the marine animals. Seriously though, stewardship means more than localism to us. If you’re a steward and taking care of your spot in all the ways that preserve it for the future, that service means way more than localism protectionism in the name of ego.”
“I feel like localism is there for a reason; when a local yells “GO” on a set wave, you bet your ass I better catch that wave. When a local has been surfing the same break their entire lives, they automatically have first dibs. However, it’s common courtesy to share the waves. When it’s super crowded, I believe it’s okay for locals to play the ‘local card.’ It’s not okay when locals get super territorial and start fights, especially if the waves are small! I think it’s best to always salute the locals when you paddle out and share your gratitude.”
“I’ve been surfing Cardiff Reef for just over two years, and last week I pulled up in my car just to look at it and a local who has been surfing this spot for 40 years sees me, walks over to my car, and says, ‘Definitely go out. It won’t get any more windy than this, trust me.’ He was right. I had an epic session that afternoon, in gratitude. How blessed I felt to receive that wisdom. That’s the best of what localism means, isn’t it? One generation learning from the next, the wisdom of the elders.”
“I feel quite strongly that localism is okay in very few instances. I surf in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.). It’s cold. I’m a beginner and trying my hardest as an adult woman to get into the sport. When I go to spots in Washington and men give me dirty looks and just seem annoyed I’m there, I get it I guess. I think I understand when the lineup is extremely crowded, that locals would want some [waves] to themselves, but I think that should be a time to teach people about surf etiquette and just invite them to learn more about the sport instead of starting fights or making faces. Especially up here, I feel there should be a bit more understanding of what we have to do to catch waves. Most people are traveling to catch waves and so most of the time there is no big local surf scene. It’s just frustrating driving hours, trying my hardest to get just one wave at least, and then getting dropped in on by someone every time who assumes that because they are better they get unlimited access to every wave.”
“Localism is ridiculous!!! What does it really mean? That only locals can surf all the waves??? The only local/owner of the ocean is GOD!! Respect is the key and many times locals are not respectful! If you don’t respect, you can’t ask to be respected! Localism sucks!”
“Localism is rubbish. Not everyone has the privilege of living on the coast, but they are still drawn to the ocean. Sure, it’s annoying when you have perfect conditions on a long weekend and the peaks are crowded, but no one has dominion over the waves. Just because someone isn’t a local, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are unsafe. There are plenty of arrogant locals making bad calls, as well.”
“The term localism gets tossed around frequently in L.A., and I simply see it as an intimidation tactic. People warned me about Topanga for years, so I stayed away for that reason, but then finally got the courage to surf there and have had many wonderful sessions and met some amazing and welcoming people. The key for me is to be patient when I surf a new place–pay attention to where the wave breaks, the feel of the crowd, and observe for a bit. I don’t roll up to a new spot and pretend I already know everything; there is something to be learned from each other and you can usually read individuals in a crowd, and who is approachable. I’ve also had those idiots at Topanga say ‘I’ve been surfing here 20 years and never seen you.’ Ok buddy good for you, want a cookie?”
(1) Dropped in on means when a surfer takes someone else’s wave by paddling into the wave and getting into the other surfer’s way.
(2) When you wake up early to go surf, usually at dawn or before dawn or after dawn, depending on each surfer’s unique relationship to how much earlier than normal they can tolerate waking up.
(3) The original type of surfing from Hawai’i, where you are on a larger board and you paddle into waves sooner than people who are on shortboards, so technically you can get more waves overall because you have to sit on the outside.
Brianna (she/her) is in her third year of the MFA program in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. Through embedding herself in surf culture, Brianna Ortega uses art as a tool to explore the relationship between identity and place through questioning power in social constructs and physical spaces. She values making art in relationship with others at the global or local site. She engages with topics of gender, race, Otherness, place, and the in-between spaces of identity. Her work is multidisciplinary, spanning across performance, publishing, organizing, video and facilitation. www.briandthesea.com
Tess is a surfer who lives in Maine. She wants to be unidentified to protect her local identity as a surfer.
In the fall of 2013, when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee (UWM), I took a course with Dr. Shelleen Greene called Multicultural America. As part of the class, we worked with the Pan African Community Association (PACA) – a non-profit organization on Milwaukee’s north side which offers after-school programs and assistance to African immigrants and refugees. Throughout the semester, each UWM student paired up with a PACA student to create a collaborative digital storytelling project that shared their stories about migration and learning new cultures.
The collaboration facilitated an engagement with members of the community that I wouldn’t otherwise have had—and it also supported a deeper understanding of the ethnic studies concepts and theoretical frameworks I’d been introduced to in the class. The student I worked with was named Juma, and the experience of working with him had a lasting and profound impact on my life as an artist.
This term, I designed and taught my own class at Portland State University (PSU), an opportunity offered to me by Harrell Fletcher, the director of the Art and Social Practice program where I am completing my MFA, and made available through the advocacy and work of Ellen Wack, an Administrative Coordinator in the department of Art and Design.
The seminar class, called Relational Art and Civic Practice, is designed to support students with conceptual development as well as in-practice application of the strategies involved in socially engaged art projects. In addition to lectures, readings, and discussions, I wanted to give the students hands-on experience with a project.
Ellen asked me if I wanted to add a community-based learning component to the curriculum, and it seemed like an obvious decision to partner with my project, Trans Boxing. Conversation has been central to my artistic practice and education, and so I wanted to create a context in which PSU students and Trans Boxing members could be in dialogue with one another. To do this, I created an interview assignment.
After doing some initial research on Trans Boxing, the students were asked to generate a set of questions they’d like to ask participants. I went through and selected the questions I found most interesting, which would be used to guide our group interviews with Trans Boxing participants. I thought a group interview would be beneficial for multiple reasons. In addition to generating content for written interviews and posters– the format provided a framework for dialogic learning. The context that was created allowed two otherwise unaffiliated groups to come together and discuss trans identity, belonging, athletics, and a whole host of other related topics.
The excerpted conversation is from two group conversations I guided between Trans Boxing members and students from my art seminar course at PSU, which took place on Zoom on Tuesday, February 16th and Thursday February 18th, 2021.
Bri Graw (Portland State University): You’ve all been talking about representation, and what it means to be an openly trans athlete in terms of how important that is for younger generations to look to. Where have you sought inspiration for your own representation?
Maggie Walsh (Trans Boxing): That’s a great question. I mean, I definitely didn’t have it growing up at all. I remember joining the softball team and learning that being successful at softball meant that in addition to the skill, you also had to make sure that you weren’t labeled like, the “dyke player.” So, I had to create representation on my own. Like even if it was something that I could intellectually understand in an academic way or something, applying it in terms of like a sport hadn’t been something that I had consciously done until I felt like I was welcomed into a space that was doing it just naturally.
Eleadah Clack (TB): Yeah, just from my experience as a queer masculine Black lesbian, you do have to look for representation in things that don’t necessarily look like you sometimes. You have to create it. If you look at the Trans Boxing class, that’s a powerful image just to look at it in a grid view. Like I don’t do it frequently because I’m usually watching myself while I do the drills, but like when I do, and I’m sitting there like, Yo, this is really deep. It’s really dope. Everybody’s so focused on themselves, but at the same time we’re coming together. And I think that’s a way of actually creating that representation within our group that we’re looking for outside. We all experienced similar marginalization. It’s not even like we have to really speak on it, because we know that. But then also seeing each other strengthen and grow… it is creating the representation that we want to see for real.
Eniko Banyasz (PSU): I actually went to one of the recorded Trans Boxing classes. I was too shy to go to a live one because I haven’t worked out with other people in so long. After warming up and then hearing the instructor be really supportive, like, “Yeah little bit more, just 10 more seconds!” I was like, “Yes, yes!” And then I did it. I felt like I accomplished something so great. My experience in high school PE education was so bad because you constantly have to compare yourself to national averages. And, you know, you’re put into these boxes. And I feel your success in physical education should be so personalized.
Baer Karrington (TB): Yeah, high school is traumatizing in a lot of ways, especially if you’re not out and especially around sports, which are so gendered. I work in pediatrics and I do a lot of work with gender expansive children or young people, and so it’s been really powerful for me to out myself as a trans athlete, so I can potentially be a gateway for young people who really struggle with finding a space that feels safe for them. I want to show them that there are spaces that are safe and that validate our identities.
Bri (PSU): Yeah, Baer, going off of that, I wanted to ask, how has this experience affected other parts of your lives?
Maggie (TB): I think that it’s given me the ability to take different parts of my life and start blending them together. I think it’s easy to kind of let certain facets of your identity just be parts of your identity and exist in different spaces. And I think that’s true of everyone. I don’t think that’s just a genderqueer thing. But, as I developed a new identity as a boxer, and as an athlete, I saw how that could be blended in with both my personal life and social life.
For example, my boss is a huge boxing fan. And like, we ended up going into a boxing match together. It became like a tool for us to talk about other issues and other things at work. So in a way, I think it’s given me a new language and a new confidence to sort of blend all these different things together that maybe previously were easier to keep compartmentalized.
Eleadah (TB): Boxing is such a technical sport, and it helps me move through a lot of other spaces where there’s not a lot of nuance or technicality. Because I have this knowledge, if I’m in a space it’s like, Oh but there is nuance, because I’m here and I know how to do this on the ropes, I know how to turn my body this way…
Dane Kelley (PSU): How do you feel about other members of the group, and what kind of connections have you made through participating in Trans Boxing?
Brionne Davis (TB): I like that it’s like, we’re all the same, but we are different, you know? And it’s not just that like one, you know, that one type of transgender individual, because when speaking to my family or friends about it, they have that one view of what a trans person is supposed to look like. In Trans Boxing there are all different kinds of people—just like you see varieties of cisgender individuals in other spaces. It just feels more like a community of, you know, all shades of colors, which is the kind of community I prefer to be in.
Camden Zyler (TB): What I’ve noticed about myself is that I’d rather bond with people doing activities that I like. So I feel like Trans Boxing encompasses that because I’m hanging out with people that I can relate to, and also we’re bonding over an activity that we all enjoy.
Nolan Hanson: I’ve never felt great in spaces where the only thing bringing people together was an identifier, and like, thinking that is enough to create community.
Camden (TB): Yeah,I feel like the way that systematic oppression affects gender non-conforming people or transgender people could be similar, but within these categories there are experiences that interact with our transness or our gender non-conforming-ness. So to have this one unifying thing, like, okay, we’re all equal because we’re all like trans or gender non-conforming… I personally find that like, that’s not true; there are just so many different factors. And maybe there’s a collective joy and sorrow and all these different things that we may or may not share, being trans and gender non-conforming, but we also have different interests.
Eleadah (TB): I think it’s cool to think about what we do in Trans Boxing within the wider context of boxing. Because while it is like, you know, heavily masculinized, and patriarchal or whatever, there’s a connection that’s also existing outside of that, because it is skill-based, legacy based. It’s a two-way interaction and educational kind of thing. So even if you’re the manliest of men, you have to submit at a certain point to learn everything that you need to learn. And then at some point you’re going to be tapped to give that back. To you know, be a nurturer in a way to someone else’s skill.
Maggie (TB): You’re like, you’re blowing my mind every time you speak; I’d never thought of it like that. It’s a very intimate sport in a lot of ways that I like—in the sense of like, it’s one-on-one, but then also the emotional aspect is so super interesting.
Belen Murray (PSU): I just want to say that I find it really interesting that you guys are boxers. And I’m thinking of boxing as like, you know, rough and tough, like smashing faces and stuff like that. Anyway, like, all of you are like, “Oh, it’s so healing. And it’s such a great community.” And I’m, like, “Wow, that’s cool. That’s interesting.” I need that. You know, I want to work on my self esteem and build a community. It’s wonderful [the project] it’s doing that.
Nolan: I’m glad that we can kind of complicate that stereotype for you, Belen.
Belen (PSU): Yeah among everything else!
Nolan Hanson (they/he) is an artist based in New York City. Their practice includes independent work as well as collaborative socially engaged projects. Their work has been shown in New York, Chicago, Portland, and San Francisco. Nolan is the founder of Trans Boxing, an art project in the form of a boxing club that centers trans and gender variant people.
Eniko Banyasz (they/them, she/her) is an illustrator, character designer, hobby comic artist and plush craft/toy design enthusiast based in Portland, Oregon. Eniko is the owner of Pangokin Creations, and is currently pursuing their BA in Art Practice at Portland State University.
Orion Rodriguez (he/they) is an author and editor of educational nonfiction and fiction with a social justice bent. His writing has been published in Salon, Prism Reports, Lightspeed Magazine, and other publications. Their visual art has appeared in group exhibitions in Chicago, Denver, and Portland.
Belen Murray (she/her) is a graphic designer and humanities and sociology student from the California Bay Area. Belen is passionate about working with Native American communities. She currently resides in Portland, Oregon, and attends Portland State University.
Dane Kelley (they/them) is a painter and illustrator based in Portland, Oregon. They are in their final year at Portland State University and will be graduating with a BS in Art Practice. Their work focuses on blurring the lines of gender and sexuality representation by using a queer lens.
Mai Ide (she/her) is a Japanese American, Portland-based female artist, mother, wife, and full-time BFA student. Her work has been grounded in the textile realm for a long time and she tries to discover new materials as her medium. For her, an assemblage sculpture is a unique collision, an opportunity to provoke radical social change.
Ivan Vincent Santos Diaz (he/him) is an artist and designer based in Portland, Oregon. He is a full-time dog caretaker with a passion as a hobby to become a professional pitbull, boxer, and Brazilian Dogo breeder, as well as someone who has the power to reach out to queer couples and queer community, as he likes to help out with any problems.
Brianna Graw (she/her) is based in Portland, Oregon. She will be graduating with her degree in art and literature in spring 2021. She prefers to spend her time surfing, wandering, or reading a good story.
Eleadah Clack (she/her/boss) is a writer and fundraiser living in Washington, DC. She is author of The World Without Racism, a self-help guide for white culture. Find out more at www.theworldwithoutracism.com and follow at @theworldwithoutracism.
Maggie Walsh (she/they) is a genderqueer marketing strategist living in Brooklyn. They have been boxing with Trans Boxing for 2 years. Their other interests include photography, ice cream, and hanging out with their chihuahua, Puck.
Baer Karrington (they/them/their, elle/le in Spansh) is a genderqueer-transfemme 4th year medical student going into pediatrics. Their main research interest is in transgender and gender expansive health equity and empowerment, with a focus on community participatory and community-led projects.
Brionne Davis (he/him)is a Queens native trans guy who has been a member of the Trans Boxing Collective around 3 years. An aspiring entrepreneur who enjoys all things tech, tech repairs and health/fitness.
Camden Zyler (they/he) is a non-binary transmasculine bookworm and writer living in New York City. They are a proud Trans Boxing member. His hobbies include reading, boxing, learning American Sign Language, and being in nature.
I’m obsessed with Times Square. Some might say it’s controversial for a New Yorker to care so much about a place that wasn’t really built for them, but what can I say, the mythology seduces me. I check in regularly, whether in person, or by way of the public web cameras planted in the area and showcased 24/7 for all the world to see on Earthcam.com. I’m curious about how it functions and whose labor and attention sustains it. During a time when the pandemic has cut off resources to a place that relies on tourism to fulfill its purpose, who does Times Square serve? Who’s holding down the fort? What’s it all for?
On a Saturday afternoon in the middle of February, 2021, I embarked on a new experiment in a familiar stomping ground. I created an anonymous telephone number, printed it on a large sign, and showed up in front of the Times Square Earthcam in the hopes that someone out there, tuning in wistfully from their web browser to the Big Apple, would call. The sign read:
CAN’T VISIT? CALL (FREE!)
SOCIAL SOUVENIR HOTLINE
DIAL 929-274-4029 NOW
I would give whoever called a guided audio tour of my surroundings: an on-the-ground, play by play broadcast of the city’s goings-on from smack dab in the center of it all. I carried my sign up Broadway like an Olympic torch, ready to take my post and let the calls come flooding in.
Leave it to Times Square to thoroughly warp one’s perception of scale. The sign, despite feeling huge and show-stopping on the subway ride uptown (and eliciting a fair amount of inquiries along the way), was far too small to be legible on screen. The scaffolding in front of the Earthcam’s mount made it infeasible to get closer to the camera, and so it read as a blurry, pixelated streak, impossible to make out.
Feeling lost, I walked the sign half-heartedly around the perimeter of the square, racking my brain for how to turn this project around. My advertisement attracted furtive, quizzical glances from passersby; I accidentally locked step with another man carrying his own sign, about Jesus and Armageddon. I felt like an outcast in a way I hadn’t quite prepared for—I had envisioned the switchboard of my social life with strangers lighting up upon arrival!
I grew cold, and scanned the landscape for shelter. Grand Slam New York, I saw in front of me. A massive souvenir shop, bordering on department store-sized. Seemed like the perfect place to defrost and regroup.
The man sitting on a stool to the right of the door greeted me warmly as I entered, and we exchanged hellos. “What’s your sign say?” he asked, cocking his head to try and make out the text, as the sign was upside down. I flipped it upright.
“Social Souvenir Hotline…” he read aloud. “It’s an art experiment,” I explained. “But it didn’t go quite as planned.” I told him all about Earthcam, the public webcam system embedded in Times Square, and, because he was curious, helped him pull up the live feed on his phone. The Earthcam happened to picture the precise blindspot from his post—while he faced inwards toward the store with his back to the Square, the Earthcam faced outwards towards the Square with its back to the store. It was like a second pair of eyes. Which is a pretty good accessory for a security guard protecting the largest souvenir shop in town.
“This is great,” he exclaimed, “Thank you for showing me this! Now I can see what’s going on out there, while I’m in here.”
“Say,” I wondered aloud, “would you be willing to call the Hotline?”
Pre-recorded Operator: This call is now being recorded.
James Blount: Hello?
Becca Kauffman: Times Square Social Souvenir Hotline. Who am I speaking with today?
James: Hi, this is James, the one you left at the store?
Becca: James, nice to hear from you! Thanks for calling.
James: Anytime. I told you I was gonna call you. I was talking to Times Square Security, that’s why I didn’t call you right away.
Becca: So, you’re the security guard at Grand Slam New York.
James: That’s correct.
Becca: Right in the middle of Times Square.
James: Yep, right in the middle.
Becca: How long have you been a security guard at Grand Slam?
James: Twenty years.
Becca: How has the store changed in that time?
James: It changed a whole lot. You know, they remodeled the whole store and everything, it’s very nice.
Becca: Do you like it better now than you did before, or?
James: I liked it before because we had more customers. Since the Corona, we slowed down a lot. It ain’t like it used to be. This is the new Times Square now, it’s not the old. The old was good. You had everybody coming out, you know.
Becca: When you say the old Times Square, you mean before Coronavirus?
James: Right. We had more customers and all that. Now it’s slow, ’cause of Corona.
Becca: How does that affect your job?
James: Well, it really don’t affect my job. It affects the store, not me. I’m good as long as I got a job. I get paid at the end of the day, so I’m good.
Becca: What do you enjoy about your job?
James: Catching crooks [laughs]. That’s my job. [To a customer] Oh, no- excuse me! Come on, you gotta put your mask on, partner, please. I told you before. [To me] He’s trying to give me a hard time. [To customer] Put your mask on, partner, please. That’s all I ask you, nicely. I’m trying to have a good day. [Customer responds. James laughs.] It’s part of the policy. Yeah. [Laughs] You ain’t lying. [Laughs] Take care, have a good one. [To me] Every now and then I get a little ball buster, he wants to break the rules, I have to tell him what’s up.
Becca: You’re good at telling people what they need to do without escalating.
James: Exactly. I’m a people person. I try to have a good day. I don’t try to have no bad day. I come in [with] a good day, I want to go home with a good day. I have a bad day, guess what, my whole day’ll be bad. Ignore them. That’s about it. They try to play with people’s minds. […] One guy, looked like he was about to light a cigarette in the store! I told him, Come on. And he’s got his mask off. Do it outside! I’m like this: I try to look out for everybody’s safety. Just wear your mask, what’s the problem? We got the sign here. It’s the rule. If you don’t wear it, guess what? You can get a $50 fine. From the police! But they could buy something in the store with that fifty, instead of giving it to the city. ’Cause the city’s gonna make their money.
Every now and then I get a ballbuster, wants to play with my intelligence. I’m a little sharp. They think I’m slow or something. I’m past slow. I’m past go. I don’t play that. Let me do my job, they do their job. They want to play games, go out there and play games. ’Cause tricks are for kids, silly rabbit. I didn’t make it all the way to 60 from being no dummy, neither. I learned a lot over the sixty years.
Becca: Hey, James, I’m gonna come in now, can we continue this interview in person? It’s a little hard to hear you.
James: Okay, yeah, cause I’m in the store. I can’t leave.
Becca: I’ll come in in just a second.
James: Okay, I’ll see you in a little bit.
Becca: [Enters store. The rest of the conversation is recorded as a voice memo]
How do you not let people rile you up when they give you a hard time?
James: I’m very sensible. I just do what I gotta do and that’s it. I try to be calm, cool. I know what I do, as far as my job is concerned. It’s not putting hands on people, or cuss[ing] them out. Talk to them with a little diplomacy, you know? If they can’t accept it, Bye, have a nice day. Let’s go. Throw ’em out the store. That’s the title of my job, throw you out. Instead of beating and arguing with you. I don’t do that. It’s unprofessional when you do that. Let’s get them out, let them get some air. See, the air might clear their minds and wake them up.
Becca: You’re taking care of them in a way.
James: Right! They don’t see that part. And in the end, as they’re leaving, This guy is right. Then they tell me, Thank you. I had an argument with a lady in here one time—little short story: she was drinking coffee and you can’t drink coffee, the sign’s up there. I told her, You got to put your coffee down, or you have to go outside and drink. You know what she told me? N—- leave me alone, you harassing me. She said that word. And you know, I’m back in that time and era. So that was very unprofessional what she said to me. That’s a slavery name. I don’t use that against people. I don’t discriminate. So why would you say n—–? I got really upset, so I threw her out of the store.
Then she came back. The air cleared her up. She came back with an apology. You know what I told her, since she said that to me? I said, I don’t accept your apology. Bye, have a nice day and get the hell out of here. That was it. I never saw that lady after that. Because she knew she was wrong. She wanted to apologize, but the apology wasn’t accepted because she already said it. You see what I’m saying? We’re not slaves no more, slavery’s over with. My forefathers and mothers and brothers and sisters went through the slavery. We don’t use that.
Becca: Way to go telling her like it is. What are the rules that it’s your job to enforce?
James: If we catch them, sometimes we let them go. Depends if they want to be harassing and act like they don’t want to give it up. You can call PP, that’s the police, and they come in and arrest them. I could make a citizen’s arrest. That’s part of my job as security. They say, Don’t try to handle it too much because it can get out of hand. Just give us a call, we right here. I got the Times Square sargeant’s number. He was just in here talking to me. They all check on me. I got them on my side and I got Times Square Security on my side. I’m not really looking for them, but if things get out of hand, they should give us a call. Because they know it can get hectic sometimes.
Becca: And what are the other rules?
James: No food or drinks. And wear your mask at all times in the store. It’s mandated by Cuomo. We gotta respect that. A lot of people don’t like wearing masks in here. I had a guy come in one day, he said, You can’t force me to wear a mask. I say, You’re right, I can’t. But I can do this: you can’t come in this store. That’s my job. So you got your rule, I got my rule. So whose rules gonna be right, mine or yours? If you don’t want to come in, that’s on you. Have a nice day. I’m making sure I’m brief, I ain’t gotta be beating around the bush talking to him all day about if it’s mandatory or not. He knows it’s mandatory, if he could read. If he couldn’t read it, I’d read it for him.
Becca: Is your home chock full of New York City souvenirs from the last 20 years?
James: Oh yeah. My house is full of all of that. I’ve got so many hats and masks, you name it.
James: I’ve got all of that. Trust me. You don’t see it accumulating, but it accumulates. You start off with one. One seems like, it might be forty or fifty or sixty. Then you end up doing more, and then it seems like a hundred or two hundred.
Becca: You have two hundred souvenirs at home?
James: Yeah! Did you go downstairs?
Becca: The 99 cent bins?
James: You go down there, you see everything you need. From kids’ cars, and all that. When the kids were younger, and the grandkids, I used to buy them stuff from down there.
Becca: So you have a whole set of family heirlooms from this store.
James: Right. They got everything here. It’s convenient for me. And I pay discount.
Becca: Are you from New York?
James: Yeah, I’m from New York. I was born through the five boroughs. But I was born in Brooklyn. When I was like 17, 18, I graduated, got out and just moved on and went into the service. I was in the Marine Corps. That’s why I’m set in my ways. I don’t take no junk. I’ve played in mud, crawled in mud. You name it, I did it all.
Becca: Did you like that kind of discipline?
James: I didn’t like it, but it was an adventure and something I’d wanted to experience. And I liked the uniform for some reason. It made me feel spiffy. And you know, a lot of girls were checking me out. I felt good. I did five years and got out. I can kill you with my bare hands.
Becca: Do you practice to keep in shape?
James: Yes. I do it on my terrace. I lift weights. I do 500 push ups a day. And sometimes I get out and I run about five miles. My heart’s still going strong at my age. I’m 60 but I still feel like I’m in my forties. I take a lot of vitamins. Fish oil, D3, Vitamin C. You need that Vitamin C. Sometimes I feel too active with the vitamins. Makes me feel real active. Hyped up.
Becca: The people who have been coming in here lately, are they actual tourists?
James: No, not really. You might get a few tourists, but tourists come from out of state, like flying. Most of these people that come here are from the five boroughs. Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. That’s the five boroughs.
Becca: So they’re all New Yorkers. But they come in and buy souvenirs?
James: They buy mad souvenirs. Some people just go crazy. And they buy a lot of clothes too.
Becca: What do you think that is, a New York City patriotism or something?
James: ’Cause they love the store. They’ve been buying here for years.
Becca: So you have regulars that come in? Tell me about the regulars.
James: The regulars, there’s a guy, he goes upstairs, he always gets a jersey every year. He likes buying jerseys. And then downstairs, the gift shop, they come and get one of the big buckets, and they come up with a whole bucket full of souvenirs.
Becca: The regulars do?
Becca: What are they gonna do with them?
James: They take them home. They’re probably giving it to their families and loved ones, whatever. They show the love, they spread it. I don’t think they’re keeping all that stuff at home. It’s too much. If you’ve got a basket full of souvenirs, they have to be giving some of the other family members some.
Becca: This store is one of the only independent retail stores around, at this point.
James: It is.
Becca: How do the owners manage to hang on to it?
James: I don’t know. They’re not going anywhere, though, I’ll tell you that. I think I got a job. To keep me busy. I hate staying home, even though I’m retired. I still have my [security] license, so I use it. I didn’t tell you that part—I haven’t had that grand slam yet. Like I had to really slam someone, I haven’t done that.
Becca: Is that why you’re still here, you haven’t gotten the grand slam in yet?
James: That’s why I’m here.
Becca: So you’re looking for trouble.
James: No! Not looking. Trouble comes to you. You don’t have to look for anything. It comes to you. You never know what’s going to happen at the end of the day. So I gotta be on point at all times. Cause this is a big store! You got three levels here. Old women steal, young women steal, old men steal, young men steal. You don’t know what’s in people’s hearts and what’s in their mind. We deal with all different types of people. You could be white, Black, Chinese—all nationalities steal. You got a lot of honest people in the world, but for some reason, all the crooks are dishonest. It’s always been like that in America. Even overseas it’s the same way. Even the guys in uniform, in the marines. Some are honest, some are dishonest. You don’t know until you really find out. That’s the crazy part… Some people don’t like to be told what to do. But that’s my job. I’ll tell you in a minute what to do if you don’t know.
Becca: If you were to write a job description for your position as security guard, up to your standards, how would you describe it? What’s your philosophy?
James: It’s beautiful. Just sit back, watch people. At the end of the day I go home with money, get paid. I don’t argue with customers. I’m happy that I had a peaceful day, that I didn’t have to beat anybody up.
You could be here today, and gone tomorrow. That’s how short life is. So you have to make the best of it. And that’s what I do, I try to make the best of it every day. Every day is like an open fruit to me. And the world expands. Just live life.
I always ask people, Are you enjoying your life?
Are you enjoying your life?
Becca: You’re asking me?
Becca: I do.
James: Me too, I enjoy life. Age is nothing but a number, and it’s the beauty and understanding and communication that’s one of the best policies that we have. And we have to utilize it.
As a token of appreciation for his participation, James was gifted a one of a kind Social Souvenir T-Shirt of his choosing. Tag made in collaboration with Kim Mullis. Photos courtesy of Becca Kauffman.
The definition of “Social Souvenir” is constantly changing, but the hotline number stays the same. Call today: 929-274-4029.
Becca Kauffman (she/they) is a first year student in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University powered by their inexhaustible fascination with Times Square.
James Blount (he/him) has been a security guard at Grand Slam New York in Times Square for twenty years. He is a veteran, a father of four, and a happy person.
“I had a notepad. And if I saw something that was not for sale, I’d still write it down. If it was something that was for sale, I would usually go back and buy it.”
My artistic practice has recently been focused on objects: our relationships to them, and the distinction between collecting and hoarding. I spoke with my dad Jon Aasness to get his insight as a person interested in objects and their histories. He is a retired employee of the Southern California Gas Company, and the first person to introduce me to the magic of “junk.”
Caryn Aasness: Do you collect anything?
Jon Aasness: I don’t have any official collections, I don’t think, but I collect a lot of things. At some points I collect cars. I try to limit my collections.
Caryn: What makes a collection official? You said you don’t have any official collections?
Jon: Yeah, you know what I think? I think part of that is being organized versus just, some of my stuff is unorganized. So I wouldn’t consider it an actual collection [if it is disorganized]. When I think of if I had a collection, I would have the case to put the things in and to display them.
Caryn: Where have you found some of your favorite objects?
Jon: At abandonments. I’d go to an abandoned house, where I’d have to be there for work and find interesting stuff. Architectural salvage type stuff, where it’s just like, oh, man, that is cool. I’d love to drag that home but I often didn’t, because they’re either big or I don’t really necessarily need it in my home.
Caryn: That kind of leads into another question I have, which is, if something’s free, how do you decide whether or not to take it?
Jon: Yeah, that’s a good question. Because it used to be that I would bring home tons of stuff and stuff that I didn’t need. But now I try to get stuff that I know I could use, or that I need. I have to force myself but you know, small house, I can’t bring a ton of stuff home. Sometimes I’ll say, Oh, you know what, somebody else probably could use that more than me. And I will let it go. That’s how I justify leaving something that’s just killer.
Caryn: If it’s in an abandonment, are there going to be more people going through the house after you?
Jon: Yes. So that was one of the things. Well, when I worked in Redondo Beach, I would cheat a little bit because they have a board in the office, and I just go in my office, and I’d look and there’s a board of upcoming abandonments, and I’d write down addresses. When I worked the four to midnight shift, and I had downtime, sometimes I would get to work and there would be nothing for me to do. So I just go to those abandonments. I could write myself an order to pull the meter and be able to check it out. And typically, we would be one of the first people on that abandonment.
Caryn: Does it usually feel like people who were moving out had time to move out what they wanted? Or do people just kind of up and go when they leave a house?
Jon: It is a mix because that was a kind of a unique deal timing wise where people that lived in that house for 30 years and paid $100,000 for it, now sold it for $900,000 and they left the bulk of their stuff. They just pocketed a ton of cash. And they weren’t concerned, they were going to buy all new stuff so people would leave just everything. The garage will be completely full and they just take keepsakes and leave everything else and it was interesting, interesting times.
Caryn: So it’s not like those people in those houses got kicked out?
Jon: No, they were selling and builders were buying the lots. Yeah, that’s what an abandonment is. You go and remove the meter. And then the crew comes and picks it up in the street and pinches the gas because they’re gonna tear the house down. So it was different, I mean, there was a time in 2008, 9, 10, where there were just tons of foreclosures, that was different, those people were leaving, and they didn’t necessarily have a place to go. So they left a lot of stuff behind. That was different. That was sad. The other one was, like, they hit the lottery, and just bailed, two very different things.
Caryn: How did you first become aware of hoarding?
Jon: That’s one thing about my job—going into people’s homes, I saw a lot of hoarding for the last thirty plus years. Thirty years ago, I didn’t know that it was hoarding. I just thought, how can they live like that? There’s a trail leading to the bathroom, the kitchen, and the bedroom; everything else is just piled up to the ceiling.
Caryn: And probably not a trail leading to the water heater.
Jon: Yeah, exactly. I was a nice guy. So I would make a trail if I had to, to get them some hot water. I don’t know if I told you that story about out in Huntington Beach, a multi million dollar neighborhood. This gal, she didn’t have any money but she probably inherited that house. She didn’t want me to look at her water heater. And I told her, “Well, I could look at it.” And she goes, “No, no, no, I don’t want you to go in the garage.” And I had already been in her house. It was disgusting. Animal feces all over the place. Probably human feces as well. But I went out, and she said that the rats have been eating through her water heater, so she knows it doesn’t work. Hmm. And I was able to get it working. She hadn’t had hot water for probably a year. I had to be there. Because the gas was shut off to the whole block or whole neighborhood. We had to go in and restore. Turn the gas back on and stuff and you can’t just say, okay, well, I’ll turn it on. You’re responsible for it in the house. It doesn’t work like that, you know, I can’t turn it back on unless I look at every appliance. So she was embarrassed. And I totally was decent, treated her decently, so she let me in. She just assumed that the water heater quit working because of the rats. That was the one where she said that her neighbor had complained. So the city sent an exterminator to the house and killed, I think it was 16 rats in that one day, then had traps set. And she said she kept hearing them going off all night long. She was alone with a tiny little dog. It wasn’t a chihuahua, it was something smaller than a chihuahua. She wouldn’t set the dog down because of the rodents.
I don’t know that I ever heard [the term] hoarding thirty years ago. It was more just tied with disgust. I mean, you didn’t think about maybe some mental illness working, with something that drastic. I mean, I was in a house one time where there was just stuff everywhere. The floor was like a hoarder’s house. But it was all pornography. That was in Santa Monica. And I was just blown away, like, oh, my gosh, and to see this person standing there in this filth, and just like, oh, my, but I would have never called that hoarding. It was just like this person is just sick. I mean, there was really, really not any furniture or anything. It was just like, wow, what the hell? And at work we would all talk about it. Everybody saw it. We come back at the end of the day and say, “This is the worst one I’ve ever been in!”
Caryn: Is there anyone whose collection you admire?
Jon: One that probably got me started on my collecting or my interest in junk was a farm that I went to in South Dakota, one of my dad’s relatives. He had probably a couple hundred thousand things. I mean, just an unbelievable collection. Little bit of everything—antiques, oddities and just bizarre stuff. His house, his barn, his outbuildings, everything was just packed full of stuff. And I remember being there as a kid. I was probably eight or nine. And he gave me a Dr. Pepper sign. It was new old stock. It was still wrapped in paper. But he had probably 12 of them. He pulled one out and gave it to me. And I was like, oh, this is cool. I was a kid, but I love Dr. Pepper. And it was advertising! That guy had just an unbelievable amount of stuff. And he let people go through and look at his collection. He had stuff displayed, hundreds of thousands of pieces. Some of them are just amazing. But it wasn’t dirty, just dusty and stuff. It was a barn, but he had stuff displayed like this was a kitchen from the 1880’s or whatever. This is a way a kitchen would look in the 1880’s. Just everything you could imagine. This guy had at least one of everything that had ever been produced. I mean, it was incredible. But he just had always been a collector. He just had a regular nine to five job, but he just collected from an early age, and he just appreciated older things. That one stuck in my head. I still have the sign that he gave me.
Caryn: Are there objects that you have gotten rid of that you still think of?
Jon: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting that collecting was the kind of thing that’s completely different now. Because back in the day, I wouldn’t mind getting rid of something because there’s always something better. So usually, when I got rid of something, it was because I had my eye on something else. And it was the kind of thing where you can wait a couple of weeks and something interesting is going to pop up in the area that we live in. There were so many cars and nobody cared about them. And usually, you’d find something even cooler than what you had but there were a few cars I regret selling. But I still probably would have sold them because there’s something even more interesting in that next garage that I go in or whatever, but I still maybe regret selling a couple of cars.
Caryn: Can you talk a little bit about your mental map of all the cars on your work routes?
Jon: Yeah, I actually had notes, I had a notepad. And if I saw something that was not for sale, I’d still write it down. If it was something that was for sale, I would usually go back and buy it. But I did. I kept track of cars when I was working in Redondo, and then I was working in Orange County. And I typically have twenty, maybe thirty cars that I knew where they were, and maybe check up on them every once in a while. I just was looking and I actually found one of my old notebooks. It was from 2004. Because I knew in downtown Huntington Beach there was a garage that I went into, where there was a Porsche speedster sitting there. I asked and it was not for sale. But it was kind of an interesting situation. And that’s the thing, they all have stories, it was her husband’s car. He was no longer living. He was a mechanic. He had tons of parts, he probably had other hundred thousand dollars worth of Porsche parts sitting in the garage there, but she just wasn’t at the point where she was going to sell anything. I never even went back and I just had it in my notes. And then I was like, I know, I wrote that down. And I went back and found it. It’s sitting on my nightstand right now, that address.
Caryn: How do you know when to get rid of something?
Jon: Well you know me, I don’t get rid of a lot.
Caryn: I don’t think that’s true.
Jon: I mean, I used to just collect stuff. Just, it was cool. But at that point, it becomes like a hoarding situation where nobody’s enjoying it. You see those shows, and it’s like, oh, yeah, I know, there’s some really cool stuff in that room, from an eight foot ceiling, you know, you get down about seven feet. That’s where the cool stuff is. But somebody could get some joy out of it if you pass it on.
Caryn: Final thoughts?
Jon: You know what I always pictured, like having a collection, for me, it would probably be automotive related. Like, if you go to the Petersen Museum, you see how they display stuff, it’s like, not just the cars, they’ve got their cars laid out. And then they have cases with radios or carburetors or different things. When I see that it’s like, wow, that’s what I would like to have, where you can just appreciate it. That’s my collection, not just something that I purchased but you could actually appreciate it, not sitting in a box somewhere in the attic. I would like to organize my garage one of these days and get some stuff up on the shelf.
Caryn: If you could ask the reader of this interview a question, what would you want to know?
Jon: If they had the space and money, what would they collect? Or, if they ended up with someone’s collection, would they keep it, or any of it?
Caryn Aasness is an artist and grad student living in Portland, OR.
Jon Aasness is a retired gas company technician living in Long Beach, CA.
“They never forgot that people helped them when they needed it. This is what we did.”
As the Letter Writer in Residence at the Living Letter Office (1) this term, I did not anticipate performing the role of a private scribe (2). While most of my postal practice during the residency consisted of discovering and sharing relevant information with new and established correspondents, it was not until I presented my work to the Art and Social Practice class that I encountered my first participant. A few weeks later, this person and I met via Zoom and they dictated a personal letter while I wrote it down, later typewriting it and mailing it to their recipient. Correspondence is a family trait, as my mother was a letter writer for the United States government in the late 1960’s. While her work was in the category of civic writing and mine in the personal, their intersection demystifies the perception that letter writing and reading are solitary activities.
Laura Glazer: Hi, Mom!
Rita Glazer: Hi! How are you?
Laura: I’m good! You’ve mentioned that early in your career, you worked as a professional letter writer. Do I have that right?
Rita: That’s correct.
Laura: What was the year that you started?
Rita: I started I believe, in 1967, which was the year I graduated from college. When I graduated, I went to Israel for eight weeks. And when I came back in late August, I think I went to work for the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), sometime in September or October of 1967. I can’t be more specific than that, because it was a long time ago. And I was there for I believe, three years. Again, I can’t really be 100% specific.
Laura: What did you study in college?
Rita: I have a bachelor’s degree in sociology. I’ve been trying very hard to remember how I got this job and I can’t. I must have applied for it through college. But I feel like I knew someone that mentioned it to me.
Laura: Where did you go to school?
Rita: George Washington University.
Laura: Were you excited to start work?
Rita: I was excited! I was working for the anti-poverty agency, which is what I wanted to do anyway. I have a feeling that I applied because I really wanted to work there.
Laura: I’ve never heard you say that. Can you say more about why you wanted to work there?
Rita: It hadn’t been around for very long and I liked what they were doing. I mean, they had all these anti-poverty programs. I thought that they were doing really good things. This is the era of Bobby Kennedy and Sargent Shriver, who was our director, and it was the whole Kennedy family thing which just enthralled me. I liked what they were doing, I liked what they stood for. I felt like they were doing something for this country and I wanted to be part of it.
Laura: Did it crossover with your academic studies?
Rita: Well, I had a degree in sociology, and writing letters, which is not what I had planned to do with my life, to be perfectly honest. But there was a certain element of being able to respond to people properly and understand what they were saying and understand what we could do. I’m not probably expressing that the right way. But I think it did enter into it. I think a lot of what I studied and did, especially my senior year, and I can’t remember what that was, all kind of fit together.
Laura: How did it work?
Rita: When the letters came in, they came through our office. They were logged in by the office secretary and the manager assigned the letters to us, the writers. She divided the letters up based on our experience with the subject matter and on the relationships we had developed with the subject matter staff.
One of my areas was Legal Services, which we all fought over, because they had nice young lawyers there! But it was a nice group. We were all idealistic young people that wanted to work for the anti-poverty agency. I guess that’s it: idealistic. Do you want me to go into what we did?
Rita: Say we got a letter from a constituent or we got a lot of letters from Congress who would either be writing us directly, or they would be forwarding an inquiry from one of their constituents. I’m trying to think of what they might ask. “I live in a very rural area in Kentucky and I need some legal assistance,” they’d written to a Congressman. “And I don’t know how to get it.” This person knew about Legal Services, but there wasn’t anything there [in Kentucky]. What could this person do? So the Congressman forwarded it to us, because Legal Services was part of the OEO.
I kind of knew some answers. But the best thing to do was to go to one of the lawyers in Legal Services, which we did. He’d read the letter, and we’d talk about it and he’d give me, “Well, given where she’s located, which is like 200 miles from the closest Legal Services place, we would need to get in touch with that Legal Services agency there and see if we can arrange for them to meet.” I’m kind of making this up but that’s the kind of thing that we did and it’s been a long time since I did it.
I would write the Congressman back, not the constituent, because the Congressman is the one who initiated it. There was a format that we had to follow when we wrote a Congressman, which was easy. So we’d write them back and say, “We have researched this, we have spoken with Joe Smith, in our Legal Services division, and his recommendation is thus, thus, and so. If you wish we can attempt to make contact with her or you can, it’s your call.” Beyond that we didn’t do much in the way of follow up, it wasn’t our responsibility to follow up, our responsibility was to get the information out.
We would get letters like that all the time: “We need help,” or, “How do you resolve this particular issue in terms of community service?” There used to be community action programs and I wish I could tell you what they were. But they were like the programs that you see in your city now, helping people find housing, things that people need to be able to do to live in a community and to have a community be responsive to their needs, too. We had Legal Services, we had Indian Affairs, which is who Dan worked for—the guy in my building that I went out with.
Laura: You could get letters from Congress people as well as directly from citizens?
Rita: That’s correct.
Laura: How would they have known to send it directly to you? I mean, citizens.
Rita: Well, the OEO did not exist in a vacuum; many people knew about it. They may have seen a Community Action Program set up in their community and gone in there and said, “I would like to do ‘X,’ how do I do that?”
Or perhaps, you came in and said, “I have this idea for setting up a Spanish language program in four counties in the state, with this local Community Action Program, which is in a small town.” I would say to this person, “We can help you once you can get something established. What you should do is write to the federal headquarters in D.C. and tell them what you want to do and it will work from there.” I guess I’m saying it was a collaborative effort on the part of the subject matter people (the lawyers and whoever was working in the various divisions), Congress, and the individual citizens. I can’t say with certainty that 50% of the mail came from Congress versus 50% from individuals. But a lot of our work was congressionally-based. We always joked that we would love to meet some of them, which is something we never did.
Laura: The people who wrote to you?
Rita: No, the Congressman and their offices. We always felt like, we supported them, we helped them out and that the least they could do was meet us. But it was okay!
I wrote a lot of letters. And we used typewriters. We didn’t have anything else. If you made a mistake, you whited it out. Eventually we got the typewriters; I think we got Selectrics at some point.
We had a secretary in our office, Elena Halfmoon. She was a Nez Perce Native American. OEO had gone to her reservation and recruited several people from the reservation to come to Washington to work for OEO.
Elena was just the coolest person in the world. She was very unworldly and the unfortunate thing is she got caught up in things that were going on and she became an alcoholic; she was not an alcoholic when she arrived. People looked after her and they got it straightened out. But she did eventually leave and we heard, much to our sadness, about six months after she left, that she committed suicide.
In theory, it was a good program to bring people from the reservations to D.C., but it really wasn’t. But they learned a lot from Elena and a couple of other people who came from the reservations and they developed programs for them. They recruited them to work and they wanted them to work, particularly the Native Americans, they wanted them to work in the Native American programs and that was the goal. Elena was not going to stay with us forever.
I have not thought about Elena in a long time. She was just a lovely woman. She was very talented, too. She wasn’t a letter writer; she was our secretary. But she would read the letters when they came in, and she would come up with suggestions. Then when we drafted our responses, every once in a while, she’d say, “You know, I don’t think this is a good answer.” She was usually right.
Laura: Let me make sure I have the process correct. Who would receive the letter? Like, would Elena get the letter and then route it to the correct letter writer?
Rita: No. Elena logged them in and the manager did the routing.
Laura: What were the other areas that the other three letter writers did?
Rita: I had Legal Services. And they gave me the Native American program. I can’t remember the exact name but it dealt with Native American reservations. I’m not sure that Elena did the routing. We had a woman whose title was something like “Congressional Liaison.” Her name was Robbie.
Laura: How old were you at the time?
Rita: I was 21, 22.
Laura: What were the other areas? Like you were Legal Services and sometimes Indian Affairs, but what were the other buckets? They don’t have to be exact. I’m just trying to get a sense of the topics that were addressed. Do you need to look at that ashtray?
Rita: You’re so smart. [Exits the room and returns holding the ashtray.]
Laura: Let me take a picture of that. You want to hold it up? Hold it a little bit higher.
Rita: It’s signed on the back, “With best wishes from Sargent Shriver 1968.” Community Action Programs, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Foster Grandparents. Migrant Opportunities, Indian Opportunities, Green Thumb, Legal Services, Job Corps. VISTA, which is Volunteers in Service to America, which was the domestic Peace Corps. Upward Bound and Health Right Programs, which I have no memory of. Head Start, which was the preschoolers and in the center, of course, is the OEO emblem.
Laura: Do you think you ever used it as an ashtray?
Rita: No, never. I would never have done that.
Laura: For all of those units that you just read, was there a letter writer for each of those?
Rita: Not exactly. It got to a point fairly quickly when it was very clear that some areas were of more interest to me than other areas and the same for the other letter writers. I think it was the sort of thing where you just kind of fell into certain specific areas but you weren’t limited to those.
Laura: How many letters were on your docket at one time?
Rita: I suppose we could have written 15 to 20 letters a day, maybe more? A lot of it was boilerplate. “Thank you for your inquiry about whatever, of whenever.” This is what we did, we wrote letters. So 15 or 20 letters a day is not bad. Sometimes we would draft them on the typewriter and they would be okay. Or sometimes we draft them and we make changes and give them to Elena and she would type them. Elena could type like 150 words a minute. Unbelievable how fast she could type. If we were really busy we’d draft out a letter on our typewriters and give them to Elena. If we wrote them at 10 o’clock in the morning and gave them to her at 10:30, they were done by noon.
Laura: Would you draft a letter on the typewriter or by hand?
Rita: Yes to both, I think. Sometimes you just pick up a pen and you write—that happens to you, too, I’m sure. I think it was more typed, just because it was easier, but I don’t know.
Laura: So you would draft a letter and then would you take it to a subject matter expert to review? Or was that only certain times?
Rita: Possibly. We may have gone before with the letter that came in if we didn’t think we had an answer or if we got the letter and said, “I’m thinking that this would work,” we’d draft it out. Then, depending on our level of confidence, we would go with it or if we had had similar inquiries, we were comfortable enough to write our own letters using previous letters as guides. As the months wore on, we would spend less and less time having to do actual research, we knew the answers.
Laura: That was going to be my next question: did you know the answers going into the job?
Rita: No. We learned, we would study, we would collaborate.
Laura: What was the name of your division?
Rita: Correspondence Control Unit. Very unromantic. We were part of the Executive Office of the Director. The director’s office was on the top floor, I think it was the tenth floor and that was Sargent Shriver. We were on the third or fourth floor. We had a nice big space. We each had our own desk and Elena was in the middle of it and there was somebody on the other side. Then there were two separate offices, one for Bill who was the boss, and then the other one, Robbie and Jan were in. And they all smoked. Of course, we did too, at that point. Everybody smoked so you didn’t notice it.
We were all very close, we worked together. Even the lawyers down the hall—to some extent we didn’t have anything in common with them—but we did: we’re all about the same age—they were a little older actually. But I go back to what I said earlier, we wanted to be there. Grandma said it best years and years and years ago, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” You get along with these people. Believe me it wasn’t hard, they were good people, they were fun people.
It sounds like there’s a lot of responsibility. But it wasn’t hard. I think it wasn’t hard, because it was interesting. Because I enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed the whole process of getting the letters, of trying to understand what it was that they were asking or talking about and talking to those who knew. I keep going back to lawyers because we had a lot of legal services questions. Being able to take what they said and make sense of it and write something back to somebody to whom it mattered. Every once in a while, we would get a letter thanking us from a Congressman, thanking us for helping out so and so, that we really did help them out and they appreciated it. We kept getting funded so we obviously we were doing something right.
Laura: Do you feel like you were really helping?
Rita: I think we all did. I think it was a time when that needed to be done. Not that it doesn’t need to be done now. But it was after Kennedy died and there was just so much going on. There was so much poverty and nobody was addressing it. LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson) came up with this Office of Economic Opportunity idea and ran with it. I was just on the inside, I didn’t physically do anything to help anybody because we were the headquarters. The headquarters people made the decisions that went out to the lawyers, the Legal Services offices, all these other offices, Indian Affairs and whatnot. It went out to those offices in the field and the country. The money went out there and helped people, made lives better. Eventually it went away.
Laura: Where did it go?
Rita: It got broken up after a while. There were people that didn’t believe in it at all. Some of these programs, like Head Start, in some form still exist, I think.
Laura: And so does VISTA, we know that.
Rita: So does VISTA.
Laura: When you say it got broken up with, which thing got broken up?
Rita: The Office of Economic Opportunity went away. And its programs were dispersed. Beyond that I couldn’t tell you, but we know for a fact that they still exist in some form or another. I don’t know if Head Start still exists as Head Start but it’s preschool; it laid the foundation for things to follow.
Laura: Here’s a question that’s brewing in my mind. How did you—who grew up as a white, middle class, Jewish girl in a family that had both parents and you had two older brothers and extended family nearby—have an awareness of what an anti-poverty program might be addressing? Because that’s not where you came from.
Rita: No, it isn’t where it came from but I came from a Jewish family. I came from a family whose parents and whose grandparents came from Russia and lived a very poor existence, were fortunate enough to find people to help them. Especially when they came to this country. One great uncle came here who came here first and left everybody behind. He managed somehow and somebody took care of him, I guess, through some Jewish social service agency, which was big in Europe. He did well enough that he was able to save enough money to start bringing his family here. But they never forgot how they became successful, they never forgot how they not just survived, but lived, when they came to this country. They never forgot that people helped them when they needed it. This is what we did.
Laura: When you were in this position did you have a visual sense of who you were helping? How did you envision the people you were receiving letters from?
Rita: Well, that’s an interesting question. I can tell you better by answering that we used to see people in the building. Constituents would come to the building. They weren’t coming to see us. They may have been called to come to the area by a Congressman.
Laura: Did you ever hear back from a citizen who contacted you directly?
Rita: Off the top of my head, I have to say no, I don’t think so.
Laura: Were there any requests for help directly from citizens that stand out in your memory?
Laura: Do you ever remember receiving a letter and being upset or sad?
Rita: Yes, I do. Every once in a while we would get a letter like that, where you just kind of put your head down on your desk. We got quite a few a week; we got more than we should have. But things were tough, we were just beginning to discover the levels of poverty in this country. Back in the mid 60s. That’s not to say we didn’t know it was there, but nobody did anything about it. And all of a sudden, people are realizing that we have people here who don’t have anything to eat. We have that now, too, for different reasons. But we had people that had no food. “Homeless” was not a word that you heard. But you did hear about people who didn’t have enough clothing to keep them warm and they didn’t have enough food—maybe food for one meal every couple of days and that was it. You didn’t hear much about that. But it existed. It still exists, even without all this, with COVID; there are a lot of people that don’t have enough food to eat.
Laura: Were the letters sent from all over the country?
Laura: Did you actually handle the original letter?
Laura: Were there lots of formats and handwriting? Were they handwritten or typed?
Rita: They were probably handwritten. I’m guessing that people did not have much access to typewriters. I honestly can’t remember.
Laura: That would make sense, though. I forget that during that time period, typewriters are very similar to computers in that they were expensive.
Rita: That’s right. Let’s face it, if it comes to a question of typewriter or shoes, I’m going to get the shoes.
Laura: You said that a lot of the letter was boilerplate. Do you recall a time when you included something very specific and possibly personal, like a personal response, in addition to the boilerplate?
Rita: We weren’t supposed to do that, it wasn’t appropriate. We did sign letters and I’m trying to remember who signed them. We must have gotten the lawyers to sign the letters, or the subject people to sign the letters. That would make the most sense. I wouldn’t have signed them.
Laura: It strikes me that you were a connector. You and I share that trait which I realize as I listen to you talk about letter writing. You were an intermediary between the constituent and the answer. Like connecting people to information that they need and don’t know how to find. Were you considered clerical?
Rita: No, we were not. We were considered professional.
Laura: Did you have to take a civil service exam?
Rita: No, not for this. I had done that before for some summer jobs. I applied for civil service, taking typing tests but not for this. This was considered professional.
Laura: Oh, before I forget—this will be the last question—on what occasion did you get this ashtray? And why were you given an ashtray?
Rita: You have to remember, this was 1968 and everybody smoked. That’s number one. At the time that these were being sent out they were not given to employees. I had a friend who worked in Sargent Shriver’s office. I went up there and they were in the process of wrapping these gifts which they were sending to Congressmen and people of influence. I said, “Can I have one?” “No, we can’t give these out.” I remember saying, “Who’s gonna know?”
Laura: Well, this has been awesome.
Rita: It was great to talk to you. This was the longest conversation you and I’ve had in a long time and who knows when we’ll do it again.
Laura: Okay, thanks, mom. This was awesome.
Rita: This was fun.
This interview was conducted over Zoom on Monday, November 30, 2020.
(1) An office and residency I created in the Art and Social Practice program’s classroom and studio space on the Portland State University’s campus
(2) Someone who writes (and sometimes reads) letters for someone else
Rita Glazer is a lifelong resident of the Washington, D.C. region. She worked in the defense contracting industry for over 25 years while raising her daughter and caring for her husband during his terminal illness. She is an active member of her synagogue, reads The Washington Post everyday, and dreams of sunny days in Hawaii.
Laura Glazer is a first-year student in the Art and Social Practice Masters of Fine Arts program at Portland State University. She graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography and lives in Portland, Oregon. An avid letter writer, she is a member of the Portland Correspondence Coop and creates artwork at the intersections of photography, design, publishing, and curation. lauraglazer.com
Lucy teaches Art Theory and Critical Theory at postgraduate level. A trained artist with a PhD in Cultural Analysis, she is passionate about art’s potential for expanding intellectual enquiry and rethinking social, political and institutional imaginaries and structures. She has taught visual artists, designers, architects and composers at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, the Sandberg Institute and the University of the Arts in the Netherlands, as well as guest lecturing internationally. She was founding director of the MA Artistic Research at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, where she developed an experimental curriculum with an expansive public program.
Lucy is editor of a number of books, most recently Reclaiming Artistic Research (Hatje Cantz, 2019), which foregrounds the agency of artistic thinking. A regular contributor to catalogues and journals including Mousse, Flash Art, Frieze and Third Text, she is guest editor of Art&Education: Classroom in 2019. Among her curatorial projects, Lucy was curator of the Dutch pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale 2017, presenting Cinema Olanda, a project featuring a solo exhibition by artist Wendelien van Oldenborgh in Venice and a multi-authored exhibition and live program across several venues in the Netherlands, which examined the Dutch self-image in relation to rapid social and political transformations. Lucy’s latest projects experiment with the boundaries of the artistic, the curatorial and the theoretical.
I am watching a group of men set a scene to be photographed. Ben Turanski, one of the prisoners at Columbia River Correctional Institution, indicates I am witnessing “prison innovation” in the works. He and some others are turning one corner of a classroom space at CRCI into a faux hospice. He twists a long piece of plastic wrapper into a cord, like an IV, attaching it to the wrist of Joshua Wright, who is lying on a makeshift hospital bed. Now done setting the scene, Turanski sits beside Wright and takes his hand.
From several feet away, Ben Hall takes a photo with a digital camera. When I ask him about what is happening, he indicates that the scenario he is photographing is inspired by his time working hospice in prison.
Amanda Leigh Evans (b. 1989) is an artist, educator, and cultivator seeking a deeper understanding of our social and ecological interdependence. She makes clay objects, gardens, books, websites, videos and sculptures, and participates in collaborative systems. Evans holds an MFA in Art + Social Practice from Portland State University and a Post-Bac in Ceramics from Cal State Long Beach.
From 2016-2021 Evans has facilitated The Living School of Art, an intergenerational art collective and alternative art school that she and her neighbors co-developed in their affordable housing apartment complex in East Portland, OR. She also was a lead collaborator at KSMoCA.