I learned many things from my friend Calvin. Here are just a few.
- Forgive those who know no better. We stopped for dinner at a restaurant in suburban Saugus on the way back from Cape Ann. I noticed our middle-age waitress took orders at every table except ours, even patrons who entered after us. She looked at us disdainfully with each pass. This was Boston in the ‘70s, not Alabama in the ‘50s, I thought indignantly. Calvin, however, didn’t say anything, and we moved to another table. The young waitress took our orders promptly. He obviously had experienced this enough times to figure it wasn’t worth confronting the bigot. I admired his tolerance, as I experienced my first real taste of discrimination.
- Sometimes one must make snap judgments. One evening during a bull session, Calvin remarked he could walk into a crowded room and figure out each person’s opinion of him within a split second. One friend asked if being so quickly judgmental was a good thing. Calvin showed us a whole new perspective. “Often I’m the only black person when I walk into a room," he told us, “so I better know right away what everybody is thinking.”
- School experiences are not the same. Calvin went to segregated inner-city schools in Boston wracked with controversy, fueled in part by black opposition to controversial school-board head Louise Day Hicks. While reminiscing about their school days, Calvin and his friends mentioned school-provided pens. Unfortunately, the pens tended not to write. They recounted, with some laughter, heating the tips to get them working again, only to ruin the pens entirely. Curious, I asked what type of pen it was. Calvin’s answer was vague, so I asked again, to which he replied, “The type of pen Louise Day Hicks would give to a bunch of nigger kids!” That answer certainly transcended the issue of writing instruments.
- Never run during a demonstration. Calvin and I wandered into a protest march against the Kent State killings, for which the Boston Police’s Tactical Patrol Force (Tac Squad) had been called out. The Tac Squad was nastiest and most heavily armed division of the police, who were not averse to cracking heads. That night, they came armed with police dogs. I took one look at them advancing toward me and sprinted into the first open door, a girls’ dorm in a brownstone. After returning outside, I found Calvin standing calmly in the middle of the street. “Don’t ever run during a demonstration,” he told me. “The dogs are trained to go after people who run.” This advice worked well during a massive demonstration in the Prudential Center the following year, when I was the lone remaining protester left on the other side of the long security line after the police had moved it back several yards. A policeman on horseback politely instructed me to join the rest of the crowd.
In the late 1970s, Calvin worked as a community garden organizer for the Department of Agriculture’s Suffolk County Extension Service. According to George Mokray, a writer and energy-policy activist who worked with him, it was a great group of people, recruited from the community gardening movement across the Boston area. Beginning in the 1980s, Calvin administered the Fruition Program for the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture, which provided food-bearing trees and bushes for public plantings.
I only heard from Calvin once after leaving Boston. He called from Chicago’s West Side on a frigid day in December 1983. We were leaving for the annual grandparents’ visit to Florida that afternoon, so I couldn’t see him. I believe he became ill around that time and passed away shortly thereafter. I’ve contacted his daughter via Facebook but haven’t received a response. This will be my final post unless I find out additional information. I’m hoping I will.
UPDATE: Calvin died in September 1988 after a long illness. He was 46. Ironically, up until that time he was living almost across East Springfield Street from where I lived during my senior year in college. I also found two letters and a photograph (below) from 1984 stashed away in a large envelope of correspondence. They still bring tears to my eyes.
Calvin, ca. 1984