Friday, March 22, 2013

Rooster Street 1972-1977

In 1972 Denny and I began our family together. As my four-year-old daughter said, “You and Dad were married and Denny was married to Birgit. Then Denny decided he wanted to come and be in our family so you got divorced and now we all live together on Rooster Street.”
After a pause she concluded. “Well…. That’s that!”
Denny had enough for a small down payment on a small two-family brown-shingled house in a neighborhood with mechanics, musicians, and old ladies the state of whose teeth made me gasp. We all got together at a block party where the old ladies brought wonderful potluck and Stormin’ Norman and Suzie made music off a truck. That is the title of one of their songs: “Rooster Street.”
One of the reasons we moved to the two-family was because Alan had decided to go back to the law. He had hated corporate law and then disliked the family business; so when we had our mid-life crises, back to law, only this time criminal. He grew a moustache and bought a motorcycle and got a job at a runaway house called Project Place.  Alan was working all the time; so I thought if we lived in the two-family the children would at least see him around on the house.  For example, they could go down the back stairs to Alan’s kitchen in his first floor apt. and have breakfast there.  
Of course, we gave them breakfast lots of days too, which I know because one morning Tory and Denny were discussing the Revolutionary War Bicentennial that we took them to in Lexington.
“Tory, Tory, finish your breakfast,” I said, and she said, “What’s more important, Mommy, eating a fried egg or learning about history?”
The kids’ home was with Denny and me on the top two floors.
That first year, Nick and Amanda had bunk beds and shared one of the little rooms off the pink-linoleumed kitchen. Denny and I had the other. Through a little hallway from the kitchen you found our one bathroom on the right and could walk straight through to the living room. We fixed it up with paint and wallpaper and hired a friend of Denny’s to build cupboards in the living room to hold our books and TV. For poor folks we lived pretty well.
Of course, we didn’t have closets or anything but there was a cubbyhole in our bedroom. Denny and I shared a hand-me-down bureau from my grandmother. The girls had beds and dressers from a bedroom handed down from my parents: Vermont rock maple.  So they were in pretty good shape on the third floor, which had two large bedrooms with closets and a smaller alcove by the back stairs. It wasn’t quite heated, so we let the doors open so the heat from the kitchen could get up there.
Two weekends a month, Alan had charge of all four; I think in retrospect they saw more of the real world than I would have liked. However they did somehow stay safe. The other weekends, Heather, Heidi and Kristen joined us and then the fun really began! Their ages were 3, 4, 5, 7, 7, 7, and 9, with 5-year-old Nick being the only boy. The older girls invented lives for Barbies or putting on little costume dramas.  The “babies,” as we called them, had little plastic motorcycles that they rode through the house. For some reason, Amanda always carried a mirror around when she was on hers.
On Saturdays there were outings to go sledding or to the Museum of Science. Denny made the plans and called these trips “adventures.” There was more adventure than we wanted one day, when he took them to that big MDC Park on Memorial Drive and came home without Amanda. I had stayed behind to hang wallpaper in Tory’s room, and was the first to notice: “Where’s AMANDA??” It turned out OK, some kind people helped her find a policeman; but omigod. Raising kids, there are a lot of times when you just have to be lucky.  And we were so lucky and blessed, more than we even knew.
On Saturday nights, we all got in our jammies and crowded onto the couch to watch Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Burnett, and the Jeffersons.
The first year Denny and I dreamed of earning our living as writers. After packing the lunchboxes and the seeing the kids off from their breakfast at Alan’s to the Agassiz School, we’d work on our projects. Denny might boil up a bunch of clothesline in the kitchen to craft a Twin Oaks hammock for the book he was writing. “How to Make Your Own Hammock and Lie in It” (Workman Publishing 1973). I took writing classes and even a magazine publishing course; as I had dreams of a feminist magazine called “The New Broom.” I also wrote a weekly book review column in a small-town newspaper started by our friends Kathleen and Ed in Harvard, MA.
But the royalties could not quite cover the nut, as Denny used to call it. Alan turned over his entire paycheck for child support plus his rent; but then of course, we had to send $$ to Birgit and put braces on her children’s teeth.  We were always broke; I was kneeling in the aisles of Kresge’s to try on shoes on my children’s feet.  We qualified for receiving the mystery meat from the government in cans dropped off at the Agassiz School. Finally, I thought I should probably put the writing on hold and look for a job, the day I answered the doorbell to two huge guys with guns to repossess my little green Maverick.
Repossess my car? But I’m a former debutante! So when the wolf showed up at the door I invited him in for coffee. While was making it, Denny was whispering to me, “Is the television paid for?” “Is the couch paid for?” 
While the three men chatted about how the repo guys were just trying to make a living like everybody else, I was frantically on the phone to Alan.
“What happened!! You were supposed to make the payments!
“…….. “  Alan said; and “………” which ended up with “Just let them have the keys.”  As I handed them over and the big guy stood up, I saw his jacket was ripped all down one side and held together with safety pins. Then Denny went to clean our stuff out of the car, and that was the last of the Maverick.
Then, what is a former debutante do on a Friday afternoon when her car is repossessed but call her parents.  Saturday Daddy called back and said Mother was flying in on Sunday, to make sure that I had some kind of car. Saturday afternoon Denny and I found one we liked, a 1969 Ford Country Sedan, maroon, with 44,0000 miles for $1,750.00.
When Mother visited, Denny and I were nervous. About not being married about being broke. As Barthelme’s genius says, “This is my worst moment.”
But after a couple drinks with Mom we felt better.
“The children are growing beautifully,” she said. She was reading to them and holding them. Soon they would grow old enough to fly out on their own to visit her in St. Louis. Mom gave us a check to buy the car, and that would be our wedding present.
Yes, we did have to get married. And I started grimly looking to find a job, feeling I was stepping onto a treadmill with no hope of getting off, ever.

Monday, March 18, 2013


The place I worked was called the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Board of Registration of Real Estate Brokers and Salesmen, quite a mouthful when you’re answering the phone! The Chairman of the Board —an outside governing group appointed by the governor-- hired me to do p.r. because some state official was saying not-nice things in the news, such as it was a revolving-door agency and that real estate licenses were being sold.  The Chairman Mr. Corcoran wanted a big p.r. splash to convince consumers otherwise.
Chairman Mr. large, handsome, crewcutted, entrepreneurial Corcoran was from the world of real estate development. (You still see Corcoran Property ads to this day 40 years later.) In his business if he wanted something done he hired someone to do it. But a state agency has positions created years in advance, by mysterious behind-the-scenes mechanisms; and the only position open was Investigator. To get a p.r. position onto the payroll of a state agency would require nothing short of an act of the General Court (official name of the state legislature). Worlds in collision.
But Joe Corcoran had hired me, and I considered myself hired ,and neither one of us knew the above quite yet; and so one day in December 1973 I took the Red Line from Harvard Square to Park Street, walked up the hill past the State House and the Parker House (where Mr. Corcoran had interviewed me for the job over a drink) to a big curvy brick building in Government Center. In the large corner office sat the Executive Director, Jack McIsaac, a leprechaunish, canny person, chatting with Louise Allen, a statuesque African-American Office Manager. (Great fingernails!) You could tell from their relaxed posture that they were allies, friends even.
                  “Go home,” Jake McIsaac told me cheerfully, “and don’t come back.”
               Well, of course I came back, after marshaling Mr. Corcoran and my own political connections which weren’t nothing; and I worked there more than three years, until I was good and ready to leave. I would be working there after Jake McIsaac had left, after Louise Allen had quit. (I was an easy person to underestimate in those days, as opposed to today in my old age. Today if you underestimate me, you’ll probably be right.)
              As I said above and hope clearly, the position was Investigator; Joe Corcoran wanted p.r., so I did both jobs. Fortunately that wasn’t difficult. Working for state government in Mass. In the early 70s the biggest problem of the job was there wasn’t ENOUGH to do.
             There was a core of investigators, perhaps a dozen, and I have to say they spent a good part of their day at the race track. White-haired red-faced Billy Craven thoughtfully taught me to fudge my expense reports; ending with a flourish, “and then you can goof off!” There were three extremely fat older men called Supervisors, a title which meant their racetrack hours paid better. My nominal supervisor, Fitzy, and a woman named Irene  (who seemed to work a lot from home) covered Western Massachusetts, and so I would do some of the same. These jobs were political appointments, not civil service, although our pay and benefits were the same.
            Investigators were supposed to spend a day a week in the office; in my case two days because I was also the p.r. person and of course a woman. We would spend the day answering consumer questions over the phone and doing license checks or whatever. Every Friday I personally wrote a press release, typed it, mimeographed it, and addressed about 230 envelopes to go into all the news outlets in the state. I also subscribed to a service, that sent me newsclips for me to paste into a scrapbook. In time, I would do radio shows and also arranged TV appearances for Jake McI. I could do this on Fridays and easily in between my Investigator duties.
                  Investigations are part of the way the state regulated certain occupations. There were something like 24 state Boards of Registration who oversaw the licensing and regulation of such professions as nurses, doctors, plumbers, hairdressers, and real estate brokers. Things changed later; but in those days there was a whole suite of offices just for the real estate license commission on the 6th floor of the Leverett Saltonstall building, Government Center, 100 Cambridge Street, Boston, MA 02202.

      There were three components to investigations: random spot checks in real estate offices;  investigation of cases opened on consumer complaints; and appearances at hearings and court cases when the cases got that far.
                  On days in the field you investigated your cases and you did “general inspections,” which were random drop-ins on random real estate offices. The businesses were subject to the spot checks to make sure their brokers and salesmen had all their licenses on proper display and had the money in escrow that was supposed to be there. The businesses didn’t like that and the general inspections I considered the toughest part of my job. I would be driving around strange towns, with my propensity to get lost; and nobody was glad to see me when I arrived. Lonely work.
                  The broker would say make an appt. and come back, but the whole point of the inspections was they were drop-in. Then they would not want to show me the files on their current deals. Then they would REALLY not like it when I asked them to sign the form that let the bank show me the balance in their escrow accounts. In the beginning, when someone was mean, I might, when I got back out to my car, cry.
                  But I toughened up, of course. I took to carrying a copy of the license law with me so I could show the brokers the exact place in the law where it said could look at all that stuff. And—oh yes—I had a badge!
                  After visiting the offices in the towns I had chosen for that day’s general inspections, I called in at the banks and went through the same kind of routine. I think only once was I not successful in getting the bank to show me the money. Most of the time everything was OK. About 10% of the time there would be an expired license or a financial discrepancy; and the state might open an investigation on the office even absent a consumer complaint. One time I found a broker sitting in front of a rack that contained all the escrow checks he had collected, flapping in the breeze.  The Director called him, and I assume he opened an escrow account.                  
                  The investigations were another matter and much more interesting. A typical case involved the deal fell through because the house didn’t pass the inspection or the buyer didn’t get his financing, and the broker would not return the $1,000 deposit to the buyer.  They were interesting and some complicated.  I might have occasion to check titles or a business license at City Hall. I learned that there’s an amazing amount you can learn from public records. I also interviewed witnesses: the complainant, the complained-against, and any other relevant persons. I learned that if someone comes around your neighborhood asking questions and flashes a badge, your neighbors will be happy to say everything they know or think about you. At the end of the investigation you wrote a report and recommended either close the case or hold a hearing on it.
                  The hearings and occasional court appearances were interesting also. An administrative hearing is a whole other level of the justice system whereby a professional license can be suspended or taken away.  A lawyer named George Belsky with an alluring bald spot (I had a little crush on him for a couple weeks) would come in and  conduct the hearings in one of the well-lit, shiny-tiled conference rooms on the floor. People would testify just like in court; often lawyers were involved. (I remember one who was in the habit of taking off his shoe and looking inside it, to show how much he disrespected the whole process.)
                  I have notes on one hearing where a blind guy had been sold a house with a giant hole in the foundation. In another, the dispute was over water: there had been a promise involving an artesian well. It could be pretty dumb stuff and often hard to sort through. I saw one complainant take down a corrupt rental ageny becayse he was persistent enough press it all the way to a hearing despite it was only $25. He lost. I realized then the secret to succeeding at crime is take small amounts from many people. Nobody will care enough to see it through.
                  On the apartment rental thing, I had a chance to go undercover. These so-called agencies were not normal real estate offices: they were a scam that advertised so-called “hot lists” of apartments and charged $25.00 to people just to read these lists.  For a day or two I posed as a naive prospective tenant and paid the $25.00 and sat at a dusty table with some messy lined ledgers and wrote down the listings that fit my pretend requirements.  Then I left and went to a phone booth and called them all—maybe a dozen. Lo and behold, Not ONE was an active rental listing. Some had never been for rent according to the person on the other end of the phone. Most had been rented a long time ago. Snap, clamp.
                  While investigating the complaint, in the meanwhile I was issuing press releases and consumer tips about the places, and the regular media got involved. Finally so did the Attorney General and eventually the places fled by night.  Pretty good case, and illustrates what I enjoyed about the complaint process. Most of the money amounts were so small it would not have paid the consumer to hire a lawyer; but our agency’s services to the public were free.
                  At the end of the year, as part of my publicity role, I went through all the cases and put together statistics on how many investigations we had closed, how much money was returned to consumers, and then sent out press releases on that.  Meanwhile, each week I would write, duplicate, and mail a “consumer tip” to the 200+ newspapers and broadcast media. I had decided on a steady drumbeat of positive publicity to lift the agency’s image, rather than the big attack on the cabinet secretary that Joe Corcoran had envisioned. (My only second though is I should have been clearer with him about it.)  I also made radio appearances and arranged for Joe Corcoran and Jake McIsaac to go on local TV shows to talk about consumer protection.
                  I also lobbied up at the State House because the Board wanted educational requirements to get licensed. At that time, all you had to do pass a multiple-choice exam, fill out the application, and pay the $50.00.  The Board didn’t like that; they wanted there to be school, which would require an act of the great and general court of Massachusetts.