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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Green Bullets

Betty A. Carey was a person like the just plain people people that were there in Santa Cruz before the surfers, hippies, and hippies brought subcultures that didn’t depend on hard work, the students brought the antiwar movements and bedroom community dwellers from Silicon Valley jobs brought bigger money.   She was a person when there were lots of oakies looking like somebody  out of a New Deal photograph collection or Let us Now Praise Famous Men. And lots of Italians who came with fish filled boats.  And very old people who came with loaded memories and wanting a social security affordable place.  She was there before the house sharing students and the speculators strangled the cheap rents.

Betty A Carey was ordinary and odd at the same time.  She lived a special home for people who were ordinary and odd at the same time -- a big old “retirement home” near the beach and boardwalk, filled with people who “had to take there medicines”. 

Santa Cruz, in those days, still made more money from agriculture than from its university. And tourism was what passed for big bucks there.

It was nestled on the north side of Monterey Bay, about 70 miles south of “The City”, San Francisco.  Stretching up that often foggy coast beside the highway, were beaches and brussel sprout fields.  In the south part of the county, by Watsonville, a wide variety of crops feed the canneries, but up on the Santa Cruz end the baby cabbages were king.   Cannery and waitress jobs sufficed to pay the then low rents

I had moved to Santa Cruz in the mid 60’s at age 13.  I was following my father who had picked the place because he had spent weekend there when he was stationed in San Francisco during his Navy tour.  There had been a training going down the coast then.  By the time I got there it was gone, but the incoming university students and the overflow from the Santa Clara valley were beginning to lift this retirement and tourist community. I was introduced to a new way of living in California.  In Seattle I had been living with my Grandfather for so long I thought all vegetables except salad vegetables were grown in cans.  Now I discovered things like broccoli and pygmy heads.

By the time I was a young adult I had already left a string of causes and candidates behind myself.  I had the makings of a good struggle bum.

I fell in with a crowd that was organizing domestic workers, especially those who cared for the elderly through government funded programs.  Betty had had a worker at one time, and she had once done domestic work.  She was more traditional in here thinking than the organizers, but she liked our program.  She began coming down to the office to help.

Betty usually wore a loose shift and had large grey curls of hair.  Her feet and legs were often puffy from fluid retention.  While here mind and dressing habits deteriorated her wit did not.  She could sneak up on your mind with a sharp and sly comment.

Perhaps there had been another Betty Carey once, although I personally thought the mold had been broken, but she seemed determined to assert her uniqueness.  When we went to  the county supervisors to complain  about there handling of  the program of domestic car for the elderly she got up to speak.  She let them know, as she had all of us that she was Betty “A” Carey.  “That’s Betty with an ‘A’ Carey”, she said.

In the 1970’s Betty was still a Roosevelt labor Democrat.  She had grown up in nearby San Jose during the depression 30”s.  She talked of who her father was a union carpenter making a decent living when the depression hit, and then suddenly there was no work.  He would go out every day and come home again without having found work. Days, then weeks and then months passed without work and there was no money. After a while there wasn’t any hope of work.  And you were hungry. 

Then Roosevelt started the WPA, The Works Projects Administration and suddenly there was work.  And hope.  Her dad started working again.

Betty believed in unions because they had provided for her family growing up.  She believed in unions as a way of life, and a cornerstone of democracy. She had some respectful differences of opinion with those who thought of the labor movement as class struggle for political power.  Because, you see, Roosevelt had saved us. 

One thing always made Betty very happy for a least the 24 hours.  You see Betty liked to eat—potatoes, chicken gravy, pastries, salad.  But if they had served her favorite for at the retirement home she was sure to talk about it when she showed up the next day.  Green bullets she would say. 

“They served green bullets yesterday at the home,” she would explain fully.  Then she would laugh with glee.  Green bullets freshly steamed, known to no one else by that name.  After all didn’t we all call them pigmy heads, baby cabbages, brussel sprouts, the finest and daintiest member of the cabbage family?

Betty was a lot like the people in the “Let us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and photographer Walker Evans.  Ordinary.  Famous only if and when praised. 

But Betty bore the dignity of being ordinary especially well.  I can see her now walking slowly in her sandaled feet, a blue pattern shift rippling a little in a gentle warm Santa Cruz beach breeze, her knees old and rounded and her legs swelled, curls uncombed, looking like a queen of the ordinary and odd. 

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