The poverty in our neighborhood hit me at first like a cruel blow. I'd read about poverty in books, seen pictures of poor people everywhere, but I was not poor and so I knew nothing of the smell of hardship, the taste of want, the enveloping feel of need. I saw what it was to be broke, really broke with no backup, and what it was to be hungry, not just ready for lunch. My third-floor walk-up in an anonymous brick building on Lakeview Avenue was one of a long line of shabby buildings that stretched as far as the eye could see. Basic things didn't work—heat for long stretches, electricity, water, and plumbing—and the landlord was around only rarely. Neighbors sat on the stoops in the summer, half-naked children in patched pants made games of pitching stones or chasing mangy stray dogs. Knots of men gathered on corners and in the vacant lot next to our building, smoking, passing a bottle or a skinny joint.
My roommates were Alex Witherspoon and Terry Robbins. Terry, eighteen years old, short with a shock of sandy hair, had the flitting energy of a nervous bird. His attention was unsteady, everywhere at once and at the same time nowhere, and his slight body was wound so tight that the smoldering Camel stuck between his teeth might have been a fuse. Any sissy can quit smoking, he would say, mocking his habit. It takes a real man to face lung cancer. He was in a hurry to experience everything, it seemed, even the inevitable. I watched the restless agitation of his hands as Terry spread his arms and flapped like a penguin running across the ice heading for deep water. Cleveland is too sunny a name for this place, he announced when he arrived. Now that the Jew from Flushing is here, I've got to rechristen you. . . . In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I dub thee Clevesburg.
Alex was thirty-three, a veteran of the Korean War and several years of SNCC campaigns in the South. Alex laughed easily, his wide mouth cutting across his narrow dark-brown face, and he joked about everything, especially the everyday dangers of a world with racist crackers in it, but often, when I came home, I'd find him sitting alone in the dark, smoking in silence. Wherever he was in his mind, he'd always smile and come animatedly to life, flipping on lights, talking and joking as he put on the coffee.
Alex was back in Cleveland to be close to his aging mother who lived in the neighborhood. He worked three days a week as a fireman for the city, a real job that paid for his mother's care and still allowed him to be a full-time organizer and activist. We were each paid $2 a week spending money, and our rent and food was covered by the Community Union. Always strapped, we subsisted on small handouts from church groups and labor unions.
Our job, Alex said, is to organize ourselves out of a job, and he meant that though we might be catalysts for change, we could never substitute for indigenous community leadership. We wanted to create organizations of, by, and for the poor people of the east side, and we were deeply critical of professional service-oriented poverty workers—poverty pimps, Alex called them, making money on someone else's misery.
We worked earnestly to become part of our community, listening to what people told us and being as respectful as we knew how to our new neighbors. We wanted to become good citizens of our block first. Don't make a big thing of it, Alex said, but pick up litter on your way to the bus stop.