by Jack Bragen
About 17 years ago, my wife would go on trips to the animal shelter to visit with the animals. Usually, I would sit in the car in the parking lot and wait for her. At the time, the Contra Costa County animal shelter was in its previous location, in a substandard building. The improved, present-day animal shelter in Martinez had not yet been built.
The earlier animal shelter resembled a detention facility; in fact, there was a television news piece I saw later which confirmed that impression. My thoughts roamed to the time when I first became mentally ill in 1982, and the trauma of being arrested. Police, at the time, believed I was taking narcotics. I was not taking narcotics; I had developed schizophrenia, paranoid-type.
As I sat in the parking lot staring at the animal shelter building, some ideas occurred to me for writing an article about this type of detention. It was to become my first published piece, if you don’t count letters to the editor in the Contra Costa Times and Martinez Gazette. This article appeared in the Street Spirit newspaper.
I had some phone contact with Terry Messman, the Street Spirit editor. I do not recall the conversations very well, but I remember his supportiveness. Taking the time to speak on the phone, and offering encouragement, usually does not happen in the modern literary scene. Any editor who is willing to do this is an exceptional find.
My wife, Joanna, was published in the Street Spirit before I was. She wrote a monumental piece about her stay at East Bay Hospital, a hellhole of a facility in Richmond, in which patients were badly mistreated and in which some patients died. Street Spirit’s investigative reporting helped to shut down that facility.
Time went on, and Terry published some more pieces that I sent to the Street Spirit. I greatly cherished the handwritten letters that would often accompany three free copies of the Street Spirit issues in which my pieces appeared. (The checks were nice also.)
At some point, things seemed to dry up. My pieces were not being published. I didn’t know what might have gone wrong.
Then, one day, I was with my wife at the Pet Expo held at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, and by pure chance, my wife recognized Terry and his wife and daughter there. They had come to see the dog show and the golden retrievers from “Air Bud.”
We went to talk to them. I was shy about speaking. Joanna asked the question that was burning in my mind. Why hadn’t I been published in such a long time?
Terry encouraged me to continue sending pieces. When I got home, it occurred to me that I should work on upgrading the quality of the pieces I was sending. Soon, I was published some more!
At that time in my life, it wasn’t a problem for me to go with my wife when she shopped, so I would go with her to Target. In the Target parking lot, people having a hard time who hoped for some spare change often approached me. I realized that I was a writer for a homeless paper, and thus, I should have a good attitude toward homeless people.
I would dig into my pockets, and generally, I had a handful of change to offer. The persons asking for help would always say something nice, like “God bless you.”
Over the last 17 years, I’ve run across more desperate people. In Pleasant Hill, I had just bought a couple of hamburgers at the McDonald’s, when a man cried out for help, saying that he was diabetic and was desperate for help. I handed him my hamburger — he needed it more than me.
I regret that I am not willing to hand out anything through my car window when there are people on the road begging. And, in the past few years, most of the down-and-out individuals that I’ve spotted are not asking for anything. They appear to be withering away.
Being published in the Street Spirit dried up one or two more times. The solution to this was always to keep trying, and to think clearly about how I could improve the work I was sending.
Terry was consistently supportive. He wrote encouraging letters and emails, time after time. This was like food to a starving person.
Writing is mostly an unglamorous pursuit. The bottomless pit of hard work, rejections, revisions, disappointments, and the occasional bit of success that pops up periodically eats up hours upon hours, days, weeks, months and years.
Writing for some people is no more than a pipe dream, a massive waste of time, energy, money and life.
Thus, the Street Spirit newspaper, for me, has always been a beacon of hope — especially during hard times.
I was at a Starbuck’s about ten years ago when my wife was shopping nearby. I would sit at their outdoor table, and drink my 20-ounce iced coffee with no sweetener and no milk in it. An apparently homeless man joined me at the table.
We got to talking about what things were like for him, and out of that rose an article called, “Coffee and Conversation with a Homeless Man.”
It is vital to writers that we do not take it personally if a piece on which we worked hard never makes it into print. Editors may respond well to good writing that is done according to their expectations (often available in their “submission guidelines”).
On the other hand, some publications receive hundreds of submissions every week, and their editors will not consider a manuscript that is anything less than superb. This can be daunting.
Terry has taken a great deal of time to encourage me in my pursuit of writing, giving much more time and energy than you could hope for from any other editor of any publication. This is far more help than anyone could reasonably ask for. At a guess, I’ve had more than a hundred of my submissions appear in the Street Spirit over the past 17 years.
Additionally, the Street Spirit is a way for people who are silenced by big money and big media to have a voice. Being silenced by bullies is one of the worst injustices.
Another injustice is that of being excluded by society, in employment and in many other realms, because of being disabled, or because of being blacklisted, or because of other forms that human prejudice may take.
Editors of newspapers and magazines are the most clear-thinking category of people with whom I’ve been in contact. This clarity has rubbed off on me a bit, and my writing and submitting of articles has been a way for me to improve my overall thinking ability.
Additionally, writing for a publication brings respect. This is something I couldn’t get doing an unskilled job, and it is more respect than I would get doing a “techie” job. Working for the Street Spirit has awakened in me a sense of gratitude, and even a sense of responsibility toward others in the world.
After Street Spirit jumpstarted my writing, I was able to place pieces in about a dozen other publications. In 2009, I began to place opinion pieces in Berkeley Daily Planet, and I began to write a column for them in late 2010.
I have to say, writing for the Street Spirit has opened a door for me on many levels. One of these doors leads to better awareness in general, and better thinking ability. Another leads to a consciousness of the suffering of others, which in turn helps my karma. Additionally, writing for the Street Spirit has put my life on a better path than it would be otherwise.
A lot of my work in the Street Spirit has focused on injustices perpetrated against mentally ill and/or physically disabled people. Some of my articles have focused on shedding a light upon the human predicament, and on how human beings in general could do much better in terms of tolerance and compassion. I have also written about the need to seek peace and nuclear disarmament in an era clouded over by the weapons of warfare.
Writing is potentially a vehicle for helping the world do better.
If your only purpose in writing is to become rich and famous, you must find a source of subject matter that has large appeal. This is fine; many people write solely to entertain readers and to gain wealth and fame. However, because of the hard knocks in my life, as a man with a psychiatric disability as well as numerous other hardships, I have built-in subject matter.
Before I came to the Street Spirit and Terry Messman, I lacked a vehicle for helping my circumstances become better and for making a difference in the lives of others. Had I just become another techie, I would have a gap in my existence. Disability or not, having an adequate purpose in life is everything.
I wish Terry the joyful retirement he deserves, after decades of unrelenting work that has made a difference in thousands of lives, including mine.
And I hope that the Street Spirit continues in the tradition in which it was founded, for my sake, and for the good it can do in the lives of many, many people.
by Judy Joy Jones
terry spent his life
to the plight
of the poorest of the poor
taking in as his own
their tears and fears
as they make their beds
on cold concrete streets
his place in the book of life
will be etched by
the intensity of his caring
for the outcasts on earth
Hail to the OG
by Joanna Freeman Bragen
Do you know how important
You are to me?
I won’t name names
You know who you are
Walking silently out the door
Your secrets are safe with me
We get older
The young get younger
What was, cannot continue forever
Time is slipping by us
But we still have our memories
So Hail to the OG
Do you know how important
You are to me?
You have made your mark
You have led the good fight
It will continue on
Just sit back and watch me
Just know in your heart of hearts
You have taught your students well
So go rest easy tonight
Your torch will still burn bright
I will miss you
But everything will be alright
Because you have meant
The world to me