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Chapter Twenty: Following my Ideas to Somewhere - Inner-City Real Estate and New Women

 

I made the choice. No one coerced me into it. I became a man not entirely of this world. Starting even while I was in high school and certainly in college, I cultivated ideas for certain projects. I put their descriptions in an “idea notebook”. The first idea was for a perpetual-motion machine. A physics professor later explained to me why that scheme was impractical. Many of the earlier ideas in the notebook pertained to inventions that might make me rich. In time, they gravitated toward ideas related to philosophy or another intellectual pursuit. For I was a philosophy major in my junior year of college. This remained an even stronger interest than my interest in English literature, my eventual major.

I numbered these scattered ideas in the sequence that they were typed. I still have copies of most; there have been many series of typed notes over the years. The next step, then, was to try to make something of those ideas. That meant gathering related themes and creating a coherent written structure. So I became a writer. I pursued this secret life while I was employed in an accounting job, being a husband, or whatever. My attention and memory were focused on ideas for the latest project.

A consequence of this type of life is that one neglects other interests. I was interested in my career, in entertainment, in sports activities, in dating, and in other aspects of life; but my attention was also focused on those ideas. As I result, I did not try as hard as I might have done to advance myself in a career or find a wife. Because my narrow, idea-centered interests could not be shared with other people, I tended to withdraw into myself. I never took the time to develop a social facade that would allow me to meet people easily. I felt uncomfortable in settings that called for mere socializing. Therefore, I never came across “the woman of my dreams”. It was easier for me to engage in deep personal conversation than idle chit chat. If I could get over the hurdle of making a good first impression, I usually did all right. The fact was, however, that I had little to say to other people, unless there was business to conduct, because I did not share the experiences that others had. I was, as my first wife said, “retarded”. I lacked the information to say intelligent things. And that did not help me with respect to career advancement. I became a rather marginal person.

Being a Yale graduate, I found that people had certain expectations of me which were not correct. I lacked social sophistication. I was a poor dresser. I’m sure that many people tagged me as a loser who had had all the advantages yet failed to capitalize on them. I found it painful for others to refer to my Yale education. This had happened so long ago and was not formative in the way that people expected. My Yale education just created another barrier between me and other people. I seldom attended meetings of the local Yale club because at such an event in 1966, I felt like such a freak when I tried to explain what I was doing as a man without a job trying to write books. That reaction was perhaps unfair to my conversation partners. I might have given up too easily.

In the late 1970s, I tasted my first fruits of success as an ideas man. In June 1974, I had begun gathering information related to proposals for a shorter workweek. Beginning my accounting career in earnest about the same time, I was drawn to statistical compilations developed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I picked out pertinent statistics, typed my own schedules, and wrote short theoretical articles incorporating this material. After meeting Congressman John Conyers in late 1978, I was drawn into efforts to support the shorter-workweek legislation which he had introduced in Congress. My first wife and I drove to Washington, D.C., to attend hearings of the Conyers bill in the House Education and Labor committee a year later. I was gratified to learn that my writings were useful in that context. This interest climaxed in publication of a book published in 1981. Its title (or, I should say, mistitle) was “A Shorter Workweek in the 1980s.” A photograph of Luciano Pavarotti enjoying himself in a swimming pool graced the front cover. It was my first book.

I was meanwhile trying to organize a grassroots organization in the Twin Cities to support proposals for shorter hours. Being a nonunion accountant, I faced problems in that regard. Another difficulty was that my father was then Senior Vice President of the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, D.C., an organization traditionally hostile toward shorter-workweek proposals. But we were able to compartmentalize. I had my life and he had his. Through much effort, I was able to whip up enough interest for perhaps a dozen persons to attend a meeting once. My introverted personality and focus on writing would not allow the group to go further. My own politics were shifting to the left. I was persuaded to become active in seeking union representation for office workers at the Metropolitan Transit Commission. Tom Laney, former president of a UAW local, encouraged those efforts. He led me into my next big set of issues which were related to international trade.

During the same days in 1991 that Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi armies invaded Kuwait, I was doing research on trade issues at the Minneapolis public library. I wrote a short paper which related the idea of reduced work time to laws concerning international trade. The Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy put it on their list of publications. Then came a series of conferences, hearings, protest demonstrations, and other events related to trade. From those experiences came a book, A U.S.-Mexico-Canada Free Trade Agreement: Do We Just Say No?. As a self-published work, it enjoyed modest commercial success.

My Minnesota labor friends and I were ahead of the curve. NAFTA-related developments were becoming big political news. I thought I had found just the right twist to reintroduce the proposal for a shorter workweek, that “dead horse” I had long been beating, into contemporary political discussions. The Minnesota Coalition for Fair Trade was established. While I was one of its early leaders, another person with a more solid labor-left background took over the organization and managed it as a coalition of labor and environmental groups during the 1993 campaign to defeat “fast-track” authority in Congress. I became a bit player, which was fine with me.

Meanwhile, the shorter-workweek movement itself was showing signs of revival thanks to the efforts of Juliet Schor, Ben Hunnicutt, Barbara Brandt, and others. As author of a pioneering book on this issue in its post-labor phase, I had a respected place in the movement. Hunnicutt put on conferences in Iowa City and Brandt’s group agitated in Boston. Eugene McCarthy was often available to lend a helping hand. We created an organization called NANSHOW (North American Network for Shorter Hours of Work) to join with our Canadian and, hopefully, Mexican brothers and sisters to submit shorter-hours proposals to the UN Social Summit whose third prepcom was held in New York City in January 1995. As I said earlier, my career as an international labor activist came to an abrupt halt when I returned home from the UN conference to find neighborhood critics and Minneapolis city officials threatening to take away my livelihood.

Back up for a moment. In the spring of 1992, I received the shipment of the NAFTA-related books. I was then living in a one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis not far from work. Space was limited. One day I noticed a large boarded-up building across the street. This turned out to be a HUD house. It would give me needed space to store the book cartons. I put in a successful bid of $20,100 to purchase the house. It had no plumbing because thieves had removed the copper pipes. I spent tens of thousands of dollars on plumbing and other contracted work to fix up the house. Then I rented out the two downstairs units, keeping the upstairs apartments for myself. Within months, the police SWAT team conducted a drug raid on one of the units.

Even so, I was foolish enough, in August 1993, to purchase a nine-unit apartment building next door after a real estate agent approached me on the street about buying it. One unit was condemned. The eventual purchase price was $72,000. Being a relatively thrifty accountant who had made some good stock-market investments, I was able to make a sizable down payment and finance the rest on a contract for deed. I did not know the full extent of the problems.

There was active drug dealing in the apartment. Only one of the nine tenants had paid the last month’s rent. Within days, I had visited all the apartment units and held discussions with tenants about what to do to put the building back in shape. On Saturday, August 13, 1993 - less than two weeks after I closed on the property - the Harrison Neighborhood Association’s housing and crime committee held a meeting to discuss “problem properties” in the neighborhood, including mine. Our ward’s City Council representative, Jackie Cherryhomes, was there. Members of the neighborhood committee berated me for having purchased the building. I “should have known better” than to do that, they said. When I expressed my desire to improve the building with the tenants’ cooperation, Cherryhomes called me an unfit person to manage a building. Everyone demanded that I evict all the tenants immediately and start over with a new tenant base. Being the stubborn, self-righteous individual that I am, I refused. As an alternative, I agreed to evict tenants who had a criminal record. Three tenants fell into that category.

The same afternoon, I wrote a memo to the building’s tenants explaining what I had to do. I knocked on doors to serve the eviction notices. Apartment number 1 was occupied by a tenant named “Jimmy”, an African American man who seemed to be involved in drug dealing. When I opened the door to explain my mission, the man started yelling at me. He threatened to sue me because my memo had identified him and the other intended evictees as persons with a criminal record. It seemed that he had a point. I just stood there dumbfounded listening to the tirade. Suddenly, a beautiful young African American woman appeared in the doorway from the back of the room. “Don’t be so hard on him, Jimmy,” she said. “He’s only doing his job.” That’s how I met my second wife. However, it took another month or so for us to become acquainted. She was then a cocaine addict.

The rest of 1993 was a difficult time for me. I pressured and negotiated with the three tenants to vacate the premises, and, in some cases, to facilitate the move, purchased their furniture and other belongings. I accepted other tenants to fill the vacancies. As often as not, they turned out to be drug dealers or persons with a habit. Each evening, until the evictions took effect, apartment number one was a den of drug activity filled with guests who smoked cocaine and talked through the night. Someone stole the keys to my house. My living quarters next door were burglarized. I was hemorrhaging money. A rookie landlord, I trusted several persons in the building who gave me information about persons involved in the drug activity or help with maintenance problems. More often than not, this trust was misplaced. The city police called to my building to handle disturbances were hostile; I was the proprietor of a “crack house”. It was like Fort Apache - me, a solitary white man, facing a crowd of black tenants some of whom used drugs.

One of those users, my future wife, became my confidante. She would tell me what was going on and, if she was to be believed, protect me from some of dire plots being hatched against me in the building. I managed to restore relative order to the building through 1994. My future wife, Sheila Foresta, went into treatment, relapsed once, and then, with the Lord’s help, achieved permanent sobriety. We were married on January 2, 1995, the New Years Day holiday, in the juvenile detention center in downtown Minneapolis in the chambers of a judge who filled in at the last moment for another judge who had stood us up.

Meanwhile, I had other family obligations. My brother Andrew visited me in June 1993. Within three days, he was hospitalized with a severe asthma attack, followed by appendicitis. Placed in a nursing facility to recover from this operation, he may have pestered the head nurse too hard for his daily cigarette ration. She accused him of sexual harassment. This resulted in court proceedings and in his involuntary commitment to the Anoka Regional Treatment Facility. I attended the trial in district court. The other attorney slipped the judge a slip of paper which said that, because I was under criminal investigation by the Minneapolis police for activities related to my building, “under no circumstances - repeat, no circumstances” - should my brother be allowed to live with me as a less restrictive alternative to commitment. I had to take the stand to deny the allegations of criminal misconduct. Later, when I demanded that the police give me information about their alleged “investigation”, no one remembered anything.

The female judge decided to commit my brother to Anoka. The Court of Appeals upheld the commitment. The Minnesota Supreme Court, however, overturned the commitment and my brother was a free man. I almost wish he had stayed in the facility. My brother moved to a halfway house, met a woman there, and got married. They moved to my fourplex in a unit next to mine. It did not have air conditioning. During an especially hot night, between July 23 and 24, 1999, my brother, who took psychotropic medication, was having severe problems dealing with the heat. In the following morning, I found his dead body lying face down on the floor.

My mother in Pennsylvania was frantic about my life as a Minneapolis landlord. Please, please, sell your building and move to a better neighborhood, she pleaded. My parents also did not approve of my marriage to Sheila. Neither did my brother. I shrugged off these appeals. I liked Sheila and her five young children. Besides, I was starting to settle into a groove as a landlord. Despite the difficulties, it was a strangely satisfying role. For the first time in my life, I was in charge of something. I made the final decisions. So long as I had the money, I did not have to answer to anyone else. I could tell the neighborhood group and City Council representative, “no”, even if I might later pay a price.

Remember, for much of my life I had been part of the proletariat of college-educated persons who thought they were influential but actually were not. Minneapolis is full of these unpaid policy wonks, self-trained experts in housing, transportation, crime, or whatever. They write newspaper articles and sit on committees advising important government officials. But I, owner of a small apartment building, was better grounded in my power. People came to me for everyday decisions. So long as things stayed reasonably on course, I was boss of my own little kingdom.

Marrying Sheila was a problem for many people. I had met her in difficult circumstances. She had five young children. She was black. I have never been one to use my head in situations like this. Yet, Sheila and I could talk and laugh about many things. I trusted her judgment in matters about which I knew little. She was personally attractive and engaging. The downside was mainly financial. I did not know at the time that she opened up three joint credit cards, forged my signature and charged the cards to the limitthinking that she could handle the minimum payments. Without my permission, she wrote checks to herself on my blank checks and altered the amounts on checks I had written. I was tolerant of these practices when they came to light, opening myself up to further abuse.

I knowingly paid more than $10,000 in attorney fees to engage legal counsel for Sheila’s teenage son, Tony, who was put on trial for murder in February,1996. A gang member living with friends, he had killed a young woman when a bullet which he fired at a member of rival gang who he thought was reaching for a gun under the front seat of a car ricocheted off the car and struck this woman who was standing nearby. The County Attorney’s office put him on trial for first-degree murder charging him as an adult. Thanks to attorney Demetrius Clemons’ efforts, Tony was not convicted of this charge. He was instead convicted of involuntary second-degree murder and sentenced to fifteen years in the state penitentiary.

My marriage with Sheila was doomed. While we were married, we were reasonably happy except that Sheila tended to accuse me of things that I never did - like having an affair with a tenant who had told Sheila that she and I “had an understanding” about paying the back rent. My mother, perhaps wanting to get rid of Sheila, offered to pay for my trip to China as a chaperone for my brother. When I returned from the trip, Sheila and the children had moved out. We were divorced in November, 1996.

I am currently married to a Chinese woman named Lian (Yang Lianlian) partly as a result of that trip. Aware of my increasing problems with Sheila, I talked about my marriage and about the possibility of meeting Chinese women with the tour guide, who had an unmarried younger sister. This tour guide later came to the United States to attend college at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. There she met Lian’s sister at a local Chinese-American function. They talked about me. The sister put me in touch with Lian. We corresponded for a time and then drew closer together through emails. I married Lian on January 28, 2000 during a visit to Beijing. It took eighteen months to get a visa for Lian and Celia, my new step-daughter.

Despite our language differences, Lian and I could communicate quite well. She hired an interpreter to accompany us while I was in Beijing but, actually, could get by in English on her own. She knew how to tell amusing stories. Lian was no destitute economic or political refugee but someone who gave up much to marry me. Daughter of a high-ranking Chinese military officer from the revolutionary period, she had had a successful career as general manager of several hotels. She was then manager of the hotel-management department of the China Everbright Corporation. Lian put the opportunity to have a family above her career. She won my heart by explaining, in her broken English, Chinese women’s attitude toward marriage: “If marry a chicken - is a chicken. If marry a dog - is a dog.” In other words, the woman adapts to her husband’s situation. This was unlike what I imagined were the priorities of American women.

I am, however, a bit uncomfortable about my history of interracial marriages. Robert Bly once suggested that my goal in life was to marry someone from each of the three races. I am obviously not a hyperliberal wanting to make that kind of statement. It may have something to do with racial self-hatred. I pick up in the attitude of many white women, especially in Minnesota, a contempt for men like me. Maybe we are all college-educated mama’s boys. Maybe we aren’t successful enough in a career. At any rate, I never met the white woman of my dreams; it seems I was always rejected when I attempted to broach the subject of romance with these women. The black women came more easily. I was boss of my own apartment building and, therefore, someone of substance in their eyes. Lian and I met with the understanding that we might become maritally involved.

I know that at least 50% of my problem with white women was my own fault. There probably was someone out there for me if I had tried hard enough, but I was too lazy, fearful, and self-absorbed. As I grew older and increasingly aware of my unimpressive career, weight gain, and other impediments to finding the right woman, I seized my opportunities as they came. I let the hateful atmosphere of gender relations in our society color my perceptions. I formed a conclusion that white females were predisposed to put me down or, in most situations, “make the man pay”. There may be, I realize, a white woman somewhere who is loving and sincere and not wanting to compete with me career-wise. There are also, of course, plenty of white men and women in happy relationships. With Lian, I at last have a sense of belonging to an ethnic and racial community which respects itself. I married a woman from China so the Chinese are now also my people. Though self-hatred may also affect Chinese society, I have myself escaped from that trap.

In January 2000, I published a book on world history titled Five Epochs of Civilization: World History as Emerging in Five Civilizations. If I may say so myself, it is a pretty good book. Not a single U.S. newspaper would publish a review. On the other hand, when I mailed literature about the book to editors of English-language newspapers in other countries around the world, it resulted in reviews in five newspapers - in India, Nigeria, and Pakistan - all favorable. Additionally, a review has appeared in the Chinese news agency’s Xin Hua Book Studies, thanks to my wife’s efforts. My book has also been translated into Chinese and will soon be sold in China. I have also found that the book’s web site, www.worldhistorysite.com, which contains parallel pages in six languages, is attracting steadily more visitors speaking a language other than English. Spanish-speaking visitors are now almost as numerous as those speaking English. My world-history book does have a worldwide reach.

With limited success, I have tried to sell this book and its concepts to both the general and academic markets in the United States. A modest number of books have been sold to history teachers in the United States thanks to direct-mail campaigns. Still, academic historians in this country want to view world history through the lens of trade contacts and migrations popularized by William McNeill rather than taking a broader view. The impact of imperialism upon the role of women is what excites them rather than what my book proposes as a central focus, the impact of communication technologies upon emerging civilizations.

Together with a retired history professor from the University of Minnesota and several others, I recently tried to start a charter school in St. Paul centering upon a curriculum in world history but was unsuccessful in obtaining grant money from the Gates Foundation. Five other schools with better connections won the competition administered by the Center for School Change. Our group was trying to put together a curriculum in world history which would be a creation story of human societies. We were also open to the idea of “big history” which would tell the story of the natural world from the Big Bang forward. Ultimately we wanted to establish a charter school centered in this curriculum which would use students’ interest in history to draw out reading, writing, and speaking skills and, perhaps, hook up with schools in foreign countries. I discussed this possibility with one of my wife’s friends in China who was a school official. I imagined that we were in the vanguard of a new world culture.

Intellectuals are often more comfortable in a land other than their own, viewing the greener pastures on the other side of the fence. I have some of those tendencies within myself. I also feel that a person such as me has a calling which is less appreciated today than it might have been a century ago. Persons devoted to cultivating ideas are largely an anachronism. Our society vibrates according to the electronic culture. I continue to write and self-publish books such as Five Epochs of Civilization and Rhythm and Self-Consciousness, which went into sports psychology and music theory, hoping to find at least a small group of interested readers. Rhythm and Self-Consciousness was a philosophical study of values brought out in the age of electronic communication. I tried to look at the concept of rhythm in much the same way that the Greek philosophers had looked at such concepts as goodness and beauty in their static, writing-based culture. Self-consciousness was a negative force in this culture ensnaring intellectuals. It was the culmination of my own theoretical speculations, begun in my college years.

Financially, all has worked out well for me, at least for the time being. I have two buildings in Minneapolis without mortgages, now worth perhaps $500,000. I have bought a third building, a condemned house across the street, which I am incurring some debt to renovate. The banks are reluctant to lend me money because of my second wife’s bankruptcy pertaining to a fraudulently obtained joint credit card. Also, because of the money poured into the building renovation, my ratio of debt to last year’s income they say is too high. Not to worry. I bought a vacant lot across the street for $300 seven years ago and recently sold it for $43,000. My stock-market investments are doing well. To pay my current bills, I am an owner of rental property. There’s another house in Pennsylvania, also without a mortgage.

My second wife’s brother, Alan Morrison, has been a tenant in my apartment building for six years. An independent contractor, he is helping to fix up the condemned house. The caretaker, Keith Baker, wants to marry a Chinese woman, who is a friend of Lian’s, if he can get a passport to visit Beijing. He couldn’t get the passport because he has $3,500 in unpaid child support. The banks won’t lend him the money to pay this off, even with my cosigning, because there is a judgment for his child support. He had his fifteen seconds of fame recently when the local television station found a copy of his loan application with a large bank in an open dumpster near the bank’s processing center. The bank said it was sorry. I guess I’ll have to become the banker for the $3,500 loan when my money from the land sale is received.

My wife Lian has recently taken a job at Target. I am writing this book. Our daughter Celia is a freshman at St. Olaf College. Lounging around the house somewhere is my faithful companion of the past twelve years, Toni the cat. So we have our own little community here in Minneapolis. Thanks to the landlord group, it seems reasonably secure against political attack.

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