Nothing is more difficult than competing with a myth.
Lawrence Hutera became my boss in 1981, when he helped me start the Whittier Writers’ Workshop at Whittier Park and Community Center. He is very proud that in such a short time, W3, as he calls it, has become the talk of the town. So proud, in fact, that he nominated me for a YWCA Leader Lunch Award a couple of months ago. I remember when he told me, it was the first Wednesday in January, the first night of our winter playwriting class.
We had planned to hold the class in the small room where the poetry and journal writing classes had been on Monday and Tuesday. But so many people showed up for the playwriting class that Big Jimmie Smith, whose job is to maintain order in the park, made a last-minute decision to move the class to a larger room.
“We gonna hafta tell ’em to wait a few minutes,” Jimmie said in his slow Mississippi drawl, his words spilling over the unlit cigarette that seems to be a part of him, drooping from his mahogany lips. He adjusted the visor of his floppy, blue denim cap and went into the multipurpose room where a group of boys were playing floor hockey.
I directed the registrants to the lounge where they could wait in comfortable chairs around the fire Jimmie had built in the fireplace, instead of having to stand in the lobby and stare at the brick walls that were the color of milk that’s about to go sour.
It wasn’t long before the kids filed out of the room like stair steps: the smallest first, followed by the middle-sized, and ending with the eldest, Melvin Melby and Melvin Campbell, and a stream of curses. Jimmie Smith is a kindhearted, even tempered brother, but his massive size causes most of the kids who hang out at the park to think twice before messing with him. Not so for “the Melvins,” as the eldest of the Melby and Campbell clans are called by park staff.
The Campbells are three freckle-faced caramel-toned Black kids and the Melbys are five red-headed white kids, also with freckles. The Melvins are both twelve years old and the best of friends. They show up every day after school with their little brothers and sisters and cause mayhem until Jimmie throws them out. Their families are saddled with drug and alcohol addiction problems, so we don’t want to eighty-six the kids; they don’t have another safe place to go after school and may not get anything to eat except for the snacks we serve. Jimmie lets them stay on one condition—that they do their homework before they start playing. He puts them in a quiet room and watches over them until they’ve all completed their assignments. Many times, I have walked past that room and observed the older boys working with their younger siblings with a tenderness they never show when they think others might be watching. It’s also touching to see Jimmie struggling to help them. His education is limited, and he is determined to do all he can to make sure that those children get theirs.
Jimmie didn’t leave the kids without options. “Y’all got three choices,” he drawled and glanced at his watch. “You can sit in the lounge and play some games, or you can go put on some ice skates and join the skating class that’s about to start, or y’all can go home.”
“We don’t need you,” yelled Melvin Campbell as he and Melvin Melby led their siblings out of the building in their threadbare winter coats.
“Don’t forget your homework,” Jimmie called after them. He then went back into the room, followed by the playwriting instructor and Egon, a regular who takes every class we offer. Some of the other participants were eager to help set up the room as well. I wanted to stop them, wishing the smell of sweaty children would magically disappear before the class began. I was about to suggest that everyone just sit tight when I heard a woman say to her friend, “This is what community’s really about, isn’t it?” I held my tongue and cringed as I watched them dodge a little boy in a red T-shirt who darted past them as they made their way into the room.
When the class was finally under way, I stepped behind the counter to straighten up the flyers and brochures that announce park programs and other neighborhood events, proud that another of our classes had filled.
JUST AS I FINISHED straightening up the counter and was about to join the playwriting class, Lawrence came out of his office, surprising me. His door had been closed and I didn’t know he was there. He sashayed up to me and told me he was going to nominate me for an award.
“You’re a natural,” he said and handed me the application. The YWCA Leader Lunch is an annual luncheon that recognizes women whose leadership and contributions have aided in the growth and development of their communities, it stated in the first paragraph. I read on, taking in the names of past winners: doctors, lawyers, architects, intellectuals, businesswomen, artists, and rich women who spend their time volunteering for nonprofit organizations.
“You must be out of your mind to think I could compete with women like them!” Lawrence is a genius at finding and seizing opportunities, but this time I was sure he had missed the boat.
Lawrence threw his head back, shaking his thick mane—his hair was the color of a ripe apricot that week—and flashed his sparkling smile. He has the straightest teeth I’ve ever seen. When he laughs they sparkle like a row of diamonds, and crinkles form around his soft gray eyes. His laugh begins deep in his belly, moves up to his throat, and then rushes out of his mouth, resonating throughout the park building.
“Yeah, tell me something new, girlfriend,” he laughed. “Everybody knows I’m crazy. But you’re a great candidate. I know you’ll win.” Big Jimmie Smith, who had been talking with me while I straightened up the counter, chuckled and nodded in agreement.
I tried to put it out of my mind, but it wasn’t easy. I was sure I wouldn’t win the award. But when you know something’s out there with your name on it, it’s pretty hard not to think about it.
I HAD STARTED W3 so I could take writing classes I couldn’t afford at other places, and I took every class we offered. My dream has always been to be a writer, and when I found myself divorced and the single mother of four children, I decided it was time to pursue my dream. But I got distracted when I ran into an old boyfriend. We tried to pick up where we had left off when we broke up after high school. It didn’t work out, but I became pregnant. I considered having an abortion, but my personal moral code wouldn’t allow me to go through with it. I am a strong believer in a woman’s right to choose. For me, the choice was to have the baby and raise her. So there I was, a thirty-four-year-old single mother with four kids between the ages of eight and sixteen, and a fifth child on the way—a single mom whose only income was a monthly welfare check and food stamps.
The kids and I had moved into the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis in 1978, shortly after I realized I was pregnant. I was so depressed I could hardly get out of bed, but I knew my kids needed to meet other children and have a place to play. The park was only a block away from our apartment, easy for the kids to walk to if I wasn’t able to go with them. I was really drawn to the place because of Lawrence and Big Jimmie. They greeted my kids and me like we were old friends, instantly making us feel welcome.
Late that summer, I made a decision to find a way to keep from going completely insane. Deciding to make use of the secretarial skills I had learned before dropping out of high school, I rented a typewriter and put an ad for secretarial services in the Minnesota Daily, the newspaper of the University of Minnesota. It wasn’t long before my phone started ringing off the hook. I taught Julian, Iris, and Tania, who were still in elementary school, how to answer the phone properly and how to help me proofread.
I didn’t earn enough to get me off public assistance, but my secretarial service, which I called Carolyn & Associates, was successful enough to supplement the monthly checks and food stamps. My conversations with my social worker took on a different tone, supportive and respectful. Soon I was able to purchase my own typewriter and I taught the children to type. Back in 1978, the IBM Correcting Selectric was a popular typewriter. Mine was custom ordered, hot pink. Whenever I was questioned, my reply was simple and straightforward: “If I’m going to pay their price, I mize well get what I want.”
My depression recurred after Ebony was born that November. It became so severe that I was hospitalized. But the intended month-long hospitalization was reduced to a week when one of sixteen-year-old Stevie’s friends came to our home with a full-blown case of chicken pox. The woman whom the welfare department sent to care for my children left, fearing that she would contract the disease. I had no choice but to come home. I made a conscious decision to try not to focus on my situation—living alone with five children in an awful apartment infested with mice and cockroaches. I decided instead to try taking it a day at a time with hopes that I could someday find my way out. I also started taking long walks and journaling. I began writing for my neighborhood newspaper, the Whittier Globe, articles that focused on the funny things my children said and did. The articles became a weekly column that I titled “Diary of a Single Mother by Beatrice Mullins.” Over the next two years, the column won first- and second-place awards from the Neighborhood Press Association.
Lawrence and his then-partner Bill were among the kindhearted people who helped me get back on my feet. They came over and brought food and helped me see the humor in my situation. They gave me work so my secretarial service wouldn’t fail and so I could continue to earn a little money. Eventually, Lawrence let on that the main reason he started getting more involved in our lives was that he saw me as an intelligent, talented woman, and he loved my smart, well-behaved children. He sincerely wanted to help pull me out of my depression.
Eventually, I did brighten up and decided to go back to school. I had earned a GED while living in North Carolina with my ex-husband. Maybe I was ready for college now. I enrolled in Minneapolis Community College. I had permission to hire a day care provider, but the woman I hired proved to be unreliable. I never knew if she was going to show up. I missed too many classes and had to withdraw before my first semester ended. I then looked around for writing classes but wasn’t able to find any that I could afford. The welfare department deducted a sizeable portion of my earnings from my monthly check and would only pay for classes if I was pursuing a degree.
Lawrence knew of my desire to write, so he wasn’t surprised when I asked if he would consider adding creative writing to the center’s adult activities. At first he turned me down. Lawrence is a performing artist and enjoys putting on large, noisy events. He wasn’t sure if quiet activities like writing classes would work. But after some thought, he changed his mind. He then put the onus on me to create my own opportunity. “If you can find someone to teach a class,” he said, “I will support you.”
One day my son Julian came home from school and told me that a poet was visiting his fifth grade class that week. He overheard her telling his teacher that she needed someone to type her manuscript and my sweet son referred her to me. A week later, when the poet brought me her manuscript, I asked if she would be willing to teach a class in our neighborhood community center. She agreed and, true to his promise, Lawrence taught me how to write a press release to advertise the six-week class.
At the time, neither of us knew that the Twin Cities are home to a vibrant literary community. Nor did we know that the teacher, Natalie Goldberg, would later become famous for her books on writing and the workshops she teaches around the country. We thought we would attract a few people from the neighborhood and were surprised that the press release, which Lawrence sent to his extensive media list, attracted people from all over the Twin Cities area. Natalie taught another six-week class and then introduced me to other teaching writers, and before I knew it, I was leading a creative writing program and taking free of charge the classes that we offered to the public—affordable classes taught by professional writers and teachers.
As is often the case when someone gives us a life-changing gift, Natalie doesn’t remember me or those workshops. Looking back, the same has been true for me many times since those days. One example that stands out is a day when I was sitting outdoors at a coffee shop with a friend. A young woman approached me and said that she had just completed her master’s degree. “It’s because of something you said,” she told me and reminded me of a writing workshop I had taught for teens in a nonprofit organization where she had been working some years before. She said that while we were waiting for the kids to show up one afternoon, she complained that the men who ran the organization expected her to do all of the grunt work. According to her I said, “Don’t let them keep you in the kitchen.” Like Natalie Goldberg, I do not remember the young woman or the conversation that led to her return to school. But I’m happy that something I said had such a powerful effect on her.
SOON WE WERE OFFERING CLASSES two nights a week, then three, then four. We held readings at the end of each quarter of classes and occasional poetry/theater performances that combined lines of student poems with scenes from playwriting students’ plays-in-progress. We also published Writer’s Cramp, a booklet of student writings.
Since its inception, W3 attracted people from all over Minneapolis and St. Paul, but few were people of color. I will always be grateful to Cynthia Gehrig, then president of the Jerome Foundation. Because of her enthusiasm and funding from the foundation, we were able to establish a mentoring program for African American writers in the fall of 1984, the first of its kind in the Twin Cities area. With a well-known local author as our mentor, a group of eight emerging writers (including myself) planned to learn together for a season. As it turned out, what I wanted or expected was different from our mentor’s expectations, causing the project to turn out differently from what either of us anticipated. The Jerome Foundation helped me understand that some efforts work out better than others. The people at the Jerome Foundation also taught me that clear communication is often the key to a project’s success, and they continued to support my efforts both at W3 and in my later endeavors.
Lawrence also continued to mentor me. When he saw how the Whittier Writers’ Workshop was growing, he started sending me to classes and workshops on arts administration. We turned W3 into a nonprofit with its own board of directors and the capacity to raise funds independent of the Park Board. I am very proud of what we accomplished. I never dreamed that my efforts to create something that was primarily for me would affect so many people. In just three years from its start, the little writing group I started in an urban park had served nearly a thousand people. And between my children, W3, and my secretarial service, I had plenty to keep me busy, for which I was grateful.
THE CALL CAME ONE MORNING in March around 10:00, while I was sitting at my desk in my home office, typing away at a client’s dissertation. I had decided not to answer the phone until I had finished the section I was working on. Besides, I was a little afraid that it might be the client, and I would have to tell him that I wasn’t as far along as I had hoped to be by then. Caller ID wasn’t readily available at the time, so whenever the phone rang, there was always the niggling fear that something may be wrong with one of the kids at school.
I waited until the phone stopped ringing and the light flashed to indicate that the caller had left a message. I listened to the message and couldn’t believe my ears when the friendly voice congratulated me on winning a 1985 YWCA Leader Lunch Award. She said I’d be receiving a formal letter of congratulations in the mail along with an invitation to the luncheon and some instructions.
“See there? What’d I tell you?” smiled Lawrence.
It turned out that the awards committee was so impressed with my work that they wanted to give me an award. They couldn’t find a place for my award within their stock categories, so they created a new category, Neighborhood Impact. I had mixed feelings about that. I’m happy that they thought enough of me to give me this honor, and I’m pleased that my work caused them to think of an important new awards category. Women who are in the trenches, making their neighborhoods better and safer, should be honored. But that’s not what I felt I was doing with the writers’ workshop. I couldn’t understand why my award shouldn’t have been in the Arts category. It disturbed me that too often Black people are only celebrated if our work is related to the social services. While it is true that W3 was located in the heart of an urban community, it is also true that its success added another level of status to the Whittier neighborhood. But everything’s located somewhere, isn’t it? W3 appeals to people from all over the Twin Cities and has attracted a lot of attention. Not because we are a social service agency, but because our affordable activities increased access to the literary arts for Twin Cities residents.
The awards ceremony was on May 10, 1985. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I lay in bed staring at the clock at 4 a.m., my mind racing. How would I handle standing in front of a room full of strangers, giving an acceptance speech? How in the world did I win this award anyway? The only other time I won anything was a stuffed elephant at Dayton’s department store. Didn’t the awards committee know better? I was sure that if I showed up at the luncheon everyone there—the committee members and the audience—would recognize their mistake. I might even be arrested for daring to show up.
Mornings in our house have always been chaotic, but nothing went well that morning. As usual, thirteen-year-old Iris got up at 4:30 and went into the bathroom, slammed the door, and turned on her boom box. Too tired to yell at her to turn it down, I just lay there and waited for her to bang on my door for our 5:00 session with our favorite television aerobics instructor.
Afterward, I poured a steaming cup of coffee and settled into my journal until ten-year-old Tania banged on the bathroom door, where Iris always hides out for at least another half-hour after aerobics, listening to her heavy metal station.
“Get out of there. I gotta go to the bathroom,” screamed Tania.
“Not ’til I’m good and ready,” Iris retorted, setting Tania into a burst of angry tears and more banging on the door.
Fourteen-year-old Julian stepped out of his room, across from the bathroom. “What’s going on?” he asked, startled. I had planned to let him sleep in this morning since he was going to the luncheon with me. I wanted all of my kids to share my triumph, but the rule was that the honorees could invite only two guests. Anyone else we wanted to bring would have to purchase a $25 ticket. I understand that events are costly. But the way I see it, if you’re going to give a woman on public assistance an award, you should make it possible for her to bring her children. It would be very encouraging to them as they think about their own futures. I decided to invite my mother and stepdad and asked them to buy a ticket so I could bring Julian. It was important for him to see the result of his having introduced me to Natalie Goldberg four years ago, when he was in fifth grade.
Things quieted for a moment and then the boom box wars began. Iris went into the kitchen and turned her hard rock back on, competing with Tania’s soft rock that was now coming from the bathroom, and Julian’s gospel music was going full blast in his room. I gave up and put my journal down and turned off my jazz, which had been playing in the living room. I was sitting on the couch feeling helpless, tired, excited, scared, and a little bit pissed when the phone rang.
“Hi, Mom.” It was twenty-two-year-old Stevie.
“Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick about you!” I hadn’t heard from him or seen him in almost a week.
“I’m in Chicago. Can you send me some money so I can get back home?”
“What are you doing in Chicago?”
“Well,” he hesitated briefly and then said, “me and my homies were on our way to St. Paul for a party and decided to keep going. Now we don’t have any money left.”
“And you expect me to send money that I don’t have?”
“Aw, Ma, c’mon.”
“Look. You found your way down there. I’m sure you can find your way back.”
There was a momentary pause on the other end of the line, and I could hear Iris and Tania gearing up for another round.
“You’re some kinda mom,” Stevie’s deep voice was seething with anger.
“Hey,” I replied, “I may not be what you asked for, but I’m what you got.” He slammed the phone down, and I hung up and rushed into the girls’ room to referee, still hearing his deep, accusing voice in my head and knowing that my worry about where he was would now be replaced with worry about whether he would get home safely. But at least his hip hop music wouldn’t be added to this morning’s boom box chorus.
There was peace after I finally got Iris and Tania off to school. Julian turned off his music and went back to bed. As I was about to pour myself another cup of coffee I dropped and broke my favorite cup—further proof, I was sure, that the day wasn’t going to go well.
While I was sweeping up the mess, six-year-old Ebony, who can sleep through nearly anything, came out of her room. Wiping the sleep out of her eyes, she asked what made that noise she just heard. Then she looked around and when she didn’t see anyone asked, “Didn’t Tania, Iris, and Julian come home last night?”
I had planned to make final revisions to my acceptance speech after getting Ebony off to school but discovered that the cartridge for my pink Selectric had run out and I hadn’t bought one to replace it. I wasn’t about to deliver a handwritten speech. I certainly didn’t want the other winners to think I was tacky in addition to being a welfare mother. Fortunately, we lived on a good bus line, so I was able to make it downtown to the office supply store and get back home quickly enough to finish typing my speech, take a shower, and be ready when Mom and Barney were scheduled to pick Julian and me up. But there wasn’t any hot water. I had to take a cold shower.
By the time we got to the Hyatt Regency ballroom I was a wreck. Mom, Barney, and Julian were ushered to a table and I was told to join the other honorees at the head table. I looked at Mom desperately, and she smiled, hugged me, and said, “Remember that old saying—when you look out at the audience, just imagine everyone sitting on the toilet.”
I made my way to the platform where the head table sat and stumbled up the two steps, tripping on the top one. A smiling woman greeted me and showed me to my seat. Unsure of what to do with my hands, I looked around to see what the other women were doing, then put my purse and the manila folder that held my acceptance speech under my seat. I wanted to take a sip from the water goblet in front of me in order to try to calm myself, but I was sure I would drop it. I wanted to start in on the salad that smiled up at me but was sure I’d drop pieces of lettuce onto my lap. The women on either side of me tried to make conversation, but all I could do was smile and answer yes or no as I looked at their expensive business suits and compared them to the beige dress I had found on a sale rack at Dayton’s. I looked out at the room that was quickly filling up and found my son and my parents and saw Lawrence laughing with someone. I felt comforted and took a few bites of my lunch.
Soon I heard the woman who would emcee the program tell someone that they had counted a thousand people in the audience. She then alerted us that she was about to begin the program. My pounding heart sank to the bottom of my feet and my hands began to sweat. That many people are going to watch me make a fool of myself? Suddenly, I just wanted to get the whole thing over with and go home and crawl into my bed, my hiding place.
I watched the emcee walk confidently to the microphone and heard her graciously thank everyone for being there. I looked out at the audience, and everything began to move in slow motion. One by one, the honorees got up, accepted their awards, and gave their thank-yous. Then it was my turn. I panicked when I realized I had forgotten my speech under my chair. My son’s out there, I reminded myself. I can’t embarrass him. I had no choice but to wing it. I stumbled over the first few words, then began to pick up steam once I realized I remembered a lot of what I had intended to say. I was surprised by the power in my voice when I got to the part about how I put on a crash helmet and pushed through the obstacles in my life. I was even more surprised when the audience began to cheer, and I was speechless as I watched person after person, beginning with Lawrence, rise from their seat smiling and clapping.
I ASKED MOM AND BARNEY to let me stop at the supermarket on the way home. I wanted to have something special for dinner so the kids could celebrate with me in some small way. I picked up a couple of steaks and a box of marble cake mix. The cashier’s line moved more slowly than I would have expected for a weekday afternoon near the middle of the month. When I made it to the front of the line, I absently put my items on the conveyor. The cashier, a skinny woman with dirty blonde hair, greeted me with a scowl. I waited patiently for her to finish ringing me up, then counted out my food stamps and handed them to her.
“I’m surprised people with food stamps can buy steak,” she spat and snatched them out of my hand. I was so shocked that I couldn’t speak. She, of course, had no idea why I was using food stamps. For all she knew, I could have been shopping for someone whose medical condition required a high-protein diet. And she obviously had no idea that most mothers who receive welfare checks and food stamps are not the mythical “welfare queens” that Ronald Reagan painted low-income single mothers to be. Rather than collecting massive welfare payments through fraud, child endangerment, or manipulation, most of us, like myself, out of necessity are in this system that shames and humiliates us.
I was taken aback but wanted to hold on to my good mood and whatever dignity remained after the cashier’s verbal assault. I stood there for a moment and Julian stepped a little closer and glared at the woman. I took my son’s hand, then picked up my bag, straightened my posture, and walked out of the store, head held high, and wondered if winning the award would help to get me off welfare.