Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The urban legend goes like this:

The urban legend goes like this: back in the 70’s, the only decade in which I lived mostly away from Springfield, the welfare office was housed at the old King’s Plaza across from the Indian Motocycle building. Going there was a depressing experience—dingy, not enough chairs, not much real help available.

The waiting room was separated from the administrative offices by an old-fashioned wooden counter with one hinged section which could be lifted so someone could pass through.

One hot August day, a Black woman was standing at the counter filling out an application for welfare. She’d been given a yellow pencil and when she laid it down for a moment, it rolled to the other side of the counter and fell on the floor. The woman lifted up the counter, passed through, and squatted down to retrieve her pencil. The ubiquitous security guard stepped forward and put his hand on her arm to remove her. She fully straightened.

“Take your hand off my arm,” she said.

Exactly what happened next is unclear, but within five minutes , Springfield had a full-blown “welfare riot” on its hands—parking lot full of police, office full of angry, shouting women and crying children.

Apparently a welfare rights organization came from the riot but it was long gone by the time I returned to Springfield and was told this story.

I’d known that plaza well when I was a kid—I spent the first 8 years of my life on Willard Avenue. Maybe I knew Pete and Don’s Fruit Stand on the corner best of all—candy necklaces for a nickel!—but my dad bought auto parts and hardware at Western Auto and at least one of my Easter outfits came from King’s Department Store.

My childhood was rather sheltered. Years of rheumatic fever kept me housebound except in the summer, when I’d improve for a while. I couldn’t attend school and was taught at home by a kindly grayhaired tutor. I read everything I could get my hands on and spent much of my real life in Arabia, China, Ireland, Scotland and Sherwood Forest.

Never, never could I have known I would live most of my life in Springfield, spend time on welfare myself, and pick up the legacy of welfare rebellion to found a new welfare rights organization, Arise for Social Justice, now a poor people’s rights organization that’s lasted for twenty-four years.

In 1985 the long-empty Indian Motocycle factory was about to become the center of a controversy regarding its re-use: affordable housing or retail? (Sound familiar?) One part of the building had already been demolished and I often walked by the site while passing out flyers for Arise. It was on one of those trips that indulged a vision I knew would never come to be.

for the indian motocycle building

Plant this lot to clover. Never mind the bones

of rusted steel, green bits of broken glass

that shine like hidden water. They can be

the fossils for future history

and the struggling herbs be prophecy

for the generations who will wonder

what lies beneath the meadow thatch

where solstice dances lift the scent

of ancient summers.

Photo from Alki1's photostream at Flickr.