Ever since the 1952 presidential election when my parents allowed me to stay up late listening to the returns on the radio in the contest between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, I’ve been a political junkie but mostly as an observer.
Aside from some campaign help on a few specific issues and candidates, I’ve never taken a direct part in politics. Except once. By accident.
It began in the late 1980s when I became aware that crack cocaine was being sold at night on the stoop of the townhouse where I lived in Greenwich Village. Most mornings, I would leave for work wading through empty crack vials and the not infrequent used condom or two. (How crack users were having sex is still a mystery to me.)
Also, the three, 20-something Wall Street guys who shared an apartment next door told me how they had twice chased a dealer off my stoop with a baseball bat on their way home from a late night barhops with Japanese clients.
The reason there was a sudden influx of drugs on the block is that the police had recently established a heavy presence in nearby Washington Square Park, sweeping the dealers out of the park at night. They apparently didn’t care where the dealers went.
Concerned and a little embarrassed that my home was being used as an outdoor drug market, I went to see the community liaison officer at the local police precinct. He suggested that I pull together a meeting of neighbors and he would attend along with the precinct’s chief narcotics officer.
I made a couple of phone calls, taped some fliers to lamp posts and sides of buildings and when the appointed evening arrived, bought a case of soda and some potato chips. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to have 35 or 40 neighbors, most of whom I’d never met, crammed into my living room.
The community liaison officer was a rotund fellow in his mid-50s, a world-weary, but comforting sort as befitted his position. The narc was right out of central casting, a cowboy who could easily slip into the Elliot Stabler role on Law & Order: SVU – if they chased drug dealers instead of sex predators.
The two men listened to us explain the particulars of the crime being committed at my building (neighbors had noticed), then the narc explained the necessity of catching the perps in the act. A neighbor across the street quickly offered the roof of his building for the narcs to watch my stoop without being seen and it was game on.
About a week later, as I was walking home from dinner with friends one evening at about 11PM, two men were coming toward me. As one learns to do in New York City, particularly at night, I averted my eyes from them, but as they got closer, I recognized the chief narc: “Hey, Ronni,” he said. “Look at this. I just arrested one of the dealers.”
It was then that I saw he was clutching the second man’s upper arm whose hands were cuffed behind him as he was being marched toward an unmarked car.
From that day forward, there were no crack vials and condoms on my stoop in the mornings.
A few weeks later, my neighbors and I gathered again in my living room to thank the narcotics officers involved and toast them with a beer. Since they were taking only a few minutes off from their job that evening for the celebration, they opted for soda.
We were on a high and not just from the beer. After the narcs left, someone suggested we start a block association; there were a whole lot of things we could do to improve the neighborhood – clean up graffiti, plant flowers in the tree pits and so on. It was unanimous decision and a name for the new organization was quickly decided.
When someone said that to get started, we needed to appoint some temporary officers, the entire room turned as one to look at me. Huh? Come on. I just wanted the drug dealers gone; my job was done.
But it seemed churlish to refuse and within a few minutes we had volunteers for vice president, treasurer and secretary, too, plus a unanimous decision on the boundaries for the association, four quiet blocks that fell naturally between two high-traffic avenues.
We set a date for a first monthly gathering of the new block association and I went looking for a meeting place. Church basements are always available for free for neighborhood events but they are universally dreary. So I went to see the owner of the corner transvestite bar.
I had never been in the place which had been there for a decade or more, but I knew it was world famous with branches, if memory serves, in Paris and Buenos Aires.
The owner, a Frenchman, was a good neighbor. He kept the music at a reasonable level and his bouncers hustled their drunks into taxis so they weren’t disrupting anyone’s sleep in the apartments nearby.
He liked the idea for holding our meetings there as long as we were finished by 9PM when his clientele began arriving. He offered free non-alcoholic drinks and refreshments with a discount on alcoholic drinks. I was off and running.
I stopped in all the local businesses – a shoe repair shop, two bodegas, the laundromat, the Chinese takeout joint, two restaurants, an antiques store and a tattoo parlor to invite them to join the association.
The last one intimidated me. The owner, who I often saw sitting in front of his store on weekends, was covered in tattoos and attached to his face was enough metal to melt down for a full set of tableware. I wasn’t sure how to talk to someone who looked like that.
He didn’t even let me finish my speech. Interrupting, he said: “You’re right. We really need this. First thing, let’s get the City to increase the length of the walk light at the corner. I see old ladies every day who can’t make it across the street before it changes to red.”
From there, he told me the tattoo parlor was a sideline. At his day job, he was an editor at ABC-TV News and since I had worked there for many years, we were suddenly old pals. So much for judging a book by its cover.
I also got one of the restaurants to donate a dinner for two as a door prize at the first meeting.
We plastered meeting announcements around the neighborhood and in the lobbies of apartment buildings and when meeting night arrived, more than a hundred people showed up. I was elected president for a year by acclimation as were the other officers, and we set annual dues at $10 for families and individuals and $25 for businesses. Most people paid right away.
And that’s how I got into local politics for a short while. I didn’t know it at the time, but 100-plus attendees was unheard of in New York City. Average block association meetings numbered 15 or 20 diehards.
Even more showed up at the second monthly meeting and then I got a call from the office of our district’s elected representative in the state capitol. Could he come to speak at the next meeting? asked an aide.
Sure, why not. I hadn’t thought of having speakers until this request. Soon thereafter, I got another call, this from the president of a local Democratic organization inviting me lunch. Well, okay, but why, I wondered to myself.
She came on hard. Would I go to their next meeting and speak about how I got so many people in the neighborhood involved? There was a political dinner coming up; I must, must go as her guest so she could introduce me to the district’s City Council member. Oh, and I would need to donate $1,000 to the party. And…
There was more she wanted me to do. I was overwhelmed at all that was being asked of me and said I’d get back to her.
I was confused. I just wanted to clean up my neighborhood, keep it safe and promote a little camaraderie on our four blocks. So I started asking questions here and there.
It turned out that block associations in the city are the lowest level of political organization. People interested in politics who don’t have connections start there. Apparently, word had gotten around about attendance at my meetings and political types were sniffing around to see if I was someone who could be groomed to move up.
No way. I traveled a lot for work in those days and I’m not all that social. I like my quiet time and it was obvious that joining up with the political movers and shakers of downtown New York could easily take up every night of the week. Plus, I certainly did not have $1,000 to donate.
So, I continued to run the block association. I added speakers each month who were useful and, sometimes, entertaining. The police community liaison officer returned to talk about crime prevention. A sanitation department manager explained recycling rules and took care of a rat problem outside one building in our area. We got that corner street light timing extended.
We organized ourselves to clean up graffiti and plant flowers. We got the City to plant more trees on the blocks and we identified some elders who lived alone and matched them up with others to help with shopping and social visits.
In one case, a lawyer offered his time pro bono to help a young Puerto Rican family sort out the husband’s green card status – which succeeded.
Seeing the results, I was enjoying this side job and it hadn’t been much trouble to avoid those political types. As soon as they realized I wasn’t eager for a political career, they went looking elsewhere for new blood although they did provide speakers when I asked and I did eventually talk to their group about how I kept attendance so high at block association meetings.
A year passed and elections were coming up. For several months, I’d been having trouble with the treasurer, a skeevy kind of guy who liked to slither up behind me when I was speaking at meetings – always crowded – and feel me up.
After my attempts to stop him failed, I had appealed to the vice president, the snooty wife of a millionaire who lived in one of the last townhouses in the neighborhood that hadn’t been turned into apartments, for some quiet help in smacking down the creep. She made a face and refused to believe what I was saying.
A couple of weeks later, I was getting ready for a dinner meeting at my apartment with the association officers to go over our election preparations. I’d just stepped out of the shower and was in my robe when there was a knock at the door. The perv treasurer. Thirty minutes early.
I sat him in the living room and went to dress. Naked now, I was stepping into my panties when the bedroom door opened. You have no idea how much noise I can make and all the bad words that can spew from me when I’m freaked and pissed off.
Within seconds, I had shoved him out the front door, threw his bottle of wine after him (I had to clean it up later which doesn’t seem right, does it?) and tried to come down from the adrenalin rush.
Later, when I explained why the treasurer was missing from the dinner, the snooty vice president again said it couldn’t possibly be true.
That first year of the block association had been a rousing success. Real change had happened in our neighborhood, a lot of good had been done for real people and new friendships had been forged. People regularly shouted hellos and waved when out and about as never before. We knew one another by name for the first time.
I was pleased and proud of what we had accomplished and had intended to run for a second year as president. In fact, no one was running against any of us four officers. But after that evening, I was disheartened.
Spending the next 12 months with a creepy treasurer and a prissy vice president didn’t appeal to me and, when I thought it over, it had been difficult to keep up with the work while I was traveling so often.
So I removed my name from the ballot.
The vice president became president, which is what she had wanted all along. And I must say, she did a terrific job. The creep soon divorced and moved away; it turned out the apartment belonged to his wife. The downtown Democrats occasionally called me to join up with them, but I declined.
Since then I’ve stayed away from politics except for making some phone calls for Obama in 2008, and ranting on at this blog. However, I just applied to become a member of the 50-Plus Advisory Board with the City of Lake Oswego.
Oh, dear. I wonder what am I getting myself into this time.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Utter Frustration