Dorothy Day: The One-Woman Revolution

I was introduced to a quietly imposing woman without makeup who wore her grey hair in a braid around her head, like a peasant or one of those strong Midwestern farm women painted by Grant Wood, or portrayed by Willa Cather in O Pioneers. She was Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper and guiding spirit of the movement of the same name. Dorothy greeted me politely, reservedly and rather sternly. and let me see a copy of the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper, which sold for a penny, and was published on May Day of 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression. When I read the first editorial, one that she wrote, I had to sit down and copy it into my notebook. It said the paper would not be restricted to the people of of any one religion or political belief, any one color of skin or cut of clothes, but that it was   

“For those who are sitting on benches in he warm spring sunlight.
“For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain.
“For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work
“For those who think there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight.”

I felt a tinge from the power of the words and of the woman who wrote them. When I looked up, she was gone.

The Catholic Worker had a “Hospitality House” in the Bowery – unlike the “Mission Houses” in the Bower – the section of Manhattan where the winos and derelicts gathered – you didn’t have to declare yourself “saved by Jesus” to get fed. You didn’t have to sing a hymn. All you had to do was be hungry.

I wrote about Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker in my second article published in The Nation magazine (“Miracle in the Bowery”) and I got to be friends with some of the young volunteers who had come from all across the country to live and work there – Michael Harrington, who went on to write The Other America that inspired the LBJ poverty program, and Ned O’Gorman, the poet who wrote reviews for Commonweal magazine. I also met Mary Ann McCoy, Eileen Fantino and Helen Russell, who had started a day care center for children in East Harlem, where I went to live and write my first book Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem.

After my article about The Catholic Worker came out in The Nation, Dorothy wouldn’t speak to me. I was shocked, because I had praised her and her work. Finally, I learned that she was upset that I had cited a fact from her Bohemian past that I had learned from Malcolm Cowley’s book Exile’s Return, about the writers who had lived in Paris in the ‘Twenties and came home to America in the next decade. Cowley had written that in the Village in the ‘Twenties, “Dorothy Day was the only one who could drink Eugene O’Neill under the table.” I though that was a great achievement; she felt it glamorized the destructive fantasy of my era of the ‘Fifties that drinking yourself to an early death was a literary achievement.  I hope that anecdote does not derail the movement for her canonization which began in the ‘Seventies and continues to this day.

Pope Francis became the first pontiff to comment on Dorothy Day in September of 2015 when he spoke to the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court. He spoke of the challenges of environmental collapse, poverty and migration, and singled out four Americans who gave us “a way of seeing and interpreting reality” that he said is desperately needed in our time: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.

The information on the Pope’s talk to Congress is from the excellent new biography Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph (Simon and Schuster).

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Me and Little Richard

I was sorry to see Little Richard pass from the scene today. I once was ushered out of a Little Richard event in a Washington hotel. It was the 1970 National Book Association convention, when authors, starved all year for attention, could show up and be invited to good parties with food and drink supplied by publishers. I had teamed up with Digby Diehl, Book Editor of The Los Angeles Times, and we had met some nice women at one of the many cocktail parties and invited them to dinner and a show at a ballroom in the host hotel. We had all had quite a bit of booze, dressed up with harmless seeming fruit juice, and we decided to dance.

Dancing was not on the menu. It wasn’t a full blown concert, but Little Richard and his group were there to be heard an respectfully appreciated. We intended no disrespect when we got up and started dancing, but two large hotel attendants (bouncers) took me and Digby by the elbows and ushered us out of there, our “dates” following.

I dont remember if we had to pay the bill or if the hotel felt it was worth it just to get us out of the place. I have no memory of such “details.” All I remember is the four of us waking up the next morning on the roof of a house in Georgetown. I don’t know how we got down, but somehow we evidently made it.

Little Richard, I meant no disrespect. I am not a good dancer (I flunked Mrs. Gates’ class). Your music inspired me to get up and try to approximate rhythmic movements. I will always be grateful.

– The Adventures of Uncle Dan

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Taste-Less Broad Ripple

With “Taste of Havana” leaving Broad Ripple, the neighborhood loses more than great Cuban sandwiches, food bowls, rice and beans, coconut flan, and rich Cuban coffee; it loses what was left of its soul. When George Chalgub and his daughter Diana Mireles opened their restaurant at 816 Broad Ripple Avenue on August of 2013, I felt a revival of the spirit of the street that was “Main Street when I was growing up at 6129 Winthrop and attending School #80 (now a condo, like nearly all of the former houses on the Monon side of the 6100 block of Winthrop.)

Those were the good old days when “Broad Ripple Avenue” was still 63rd Street and Broad Ripple was a great neighborhood, not yet a “Village.” (It became a “Village” in 1969, around the time that “The Lower East Side” of Manhattan renamed itself “The East Village” to justify raising rents by claiming to be an extension of the original Greenwich Village. They at least had the rationale of proximity for their name-changing rent raise. The so-called “village” of Broad Ripple becomes bigger, more crowded, and less village-like every day (I have yet to see any tepees or leprechauns in the vicinity.)

The reason the Cuban restaurant reminds me of the days when the “Avenue” was simply 63rd Street is that George Chalub, the owner of “Taste of Havana” carries on real conversations with his customers, the kind of friendly and interesting talk that I used to hear at Gene Purcell’s Pure Oil gas station that sat on the corner of 63rd and Winthrop. I used to hang out there after classes were over at School #80 in hopes of hearing talk by the Broad Ripple basketball players who liked to stop in and get peanuts from the penny machine . People who got their gas filled or their oil changed or any kind of repair work done on their car often got out and went in to the “office” to shoot the breeze with Gene or other customers who were usually neighbors.

It’s not just in Broad Ripple, of course, that people now mainly talk to their phones or just stare at them. “Taste of Havana” discourages such behavior, unless it’s for a good cause. One of the signs on the wall expressing George’s philosophy announces: “NO WIFI. Call your mother. Talk to her. Pretend it’s 1996.” Another of George’s suggestions begins “Start with the best coffee around. [It’s been voted Best in Indiana.]” The recommendations for some of the restaurants finest dishes closes with this advice: “Now sip your coffee, enjoy the company and LIFE.”

George likes to talk. He likes to talk to his customers, find out where they’re from and what they like, make sure they enjoyed whatever he served them, making sure they top it off with a shot of the dark, sweet Cuban coffee that comes with every meal and gives a nice boost to your day.

I have a special affection for “Taste of Havana,” because my God Daughter from Miami came to live here with me while she went to Harrison College to study veterinary medicine and she needed a part time job. Just when she was getting on a lot of waiting lists but no jobs, I happened to walk by “A Taste of Havana” and saw a sign in the window generic viagra 50mg that said “Now Hiring.” I ran-jogged huffed and puffed my way back to our half of a double on 61st Street, and breathlessly said to Karina “Get down to this place and speak some Spanish!” She did, and learned that George had gone to Coral Gables High School, the rival of her own Miami Senior High – the job was hers. She became friends with George and his daughter Diana and had an instant Cuban home-away-from-home as well as a part-time job. She made the Dean’s List at Harrison, became certified as a veterinary assistant, and now works at an animal hospital in Miami.

A year ago I was in “Taste of Havana” on a Saturday when a pub crawl of the burgeoning bars in Broad Ripple Avenue was underway. George was fuming.

“They’re always sponsoring events to help the bars” George said – referring to The Broad Ripple Village Association – “never anything to help us.” The bar scene is the scene on Broad Ripple avenue now, especially on Saturday nights and holidays. Early in the morning hours of a 4th of July celebration in 2014, seven people were shot on Broad Ripple avenue, a block from “Taste of Havana” when my God Daughter was working there. Fortunately, she had long been safe at home. I had felt relief when I knew she was coming to live in my old neighborhood for a year, thinking she would be in a safer place than in Miami. I was thinking of the Broad Ripple of my childhood, not the one of 2014 and today.

Broad Ripple boasts that its bars stay open till 3AM, establishing a mecca for partying young people and their teeny-bopper followers who fill up on “Insomnia Cookies” (one of the few stores that’s left) while waiting for the boys to come out of the bars. But the daytimes are no longer populating the Avenue with strollers to windowshop and frequent stores – there are five empty storefronts between Carrolton and College, and last week two more stores closed on the corner of the Avenue and College and just around the corner on College. Between Guilford and College on Broad Ripple Avenue I counted eleven bars last week – and, symbolically enough, the office of the BRVA was right in the middle of them.

George is preparing to take “Taste of Havana” north to 8329 Michigan Road at 86th Street, opening in January. He’ll stay open at the current stand on Broad Ripple Avenue – between Carrolton and Guilford – for the next few months, so it’s a last chance to enjoy the great Cuban bread of the sandwiches, the fresh pork and ham and cheese and steak and turkey that fill them, and the un-matchable Cuban coffee to top off the your feast. It’s also a last chance to shut down your phone and talk to friends while you eat, or sit at the counter and talk to George, who will make sure you’re happy with what he serves you, and talk about anything else that’s on your mind – or his. He brought back the neighborhood spirit of the old Broad Ripple, and for me, he’ll be taking it with him when he leaves.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield