1/22/2009 – 8:30 am

Have no gas money, so I called my brother, Kevin, and asked him to lend me five bucks to get enough gas to get home from Redwood City. He’s gonna be in Palo Alto at 10, so here I sit in my car in a parking lot at a shopping mall in the vicinity of one of the richest zip codes in the country. Economic irony. I am dressed in sweats, a nice green sweat shirt that incidently belongs to my brother which are all clean. My hair is mildly oily, but a bath is on the schedule…whenever I get home.

Technically, I’m not penniless because I do have at least five pennies at the bottom of my purse. I suppose I am worse than penniless since I have some debt. The other night I watched “It Could Happen to You” with Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda. There was a line that is fitting for this moment. She says, “I feel bankrupt.” Yes,that is how I feel right now. But that is not how I am.

Even though I have less than nothing, I think I still possess a great deal. I have ten kids whom I adore. They are healthy. None is a scholar or millionaire or distinguished with any great gift the world recognizes, but to me they are the ten most important people in my life. [2016: I’m wrong about the first half of that sentence.] Each possess a personality distinct and gifted, they are innovative, industrious and indefatigable, and I love them. I have a roof over my head, not my roof, but one nonetheless. I have food on the table and clothes on my back. Isn’t that what’s promised to me and the sparrow?

What I want though seems like so little, but at this moment, it is not in my hands. I want some work that will enable me to support my family, continue their educations and be of assistance when they are in need. I have prayed and prayed, enough to be full, not too much where I’d forget my God.

What I dream about is frosting. Sweet, delightful, delicious; but entirely unnecessary. My own home, maybe a little farm, a Wedgewood stove, my own room, my own office (decorated and designed by the Peters), an ability to help my kids get their own homes and college educations….and finally, a husband, a companion with those eyes.

But that would be too much, wouldn’t it? That would be having it all, and I don’t think I could live with having it all. I would be afraid that something greater than the frosting would be taken in exchange for it, sacrificed if you will. A child, perhaps? I am afraid to have it all, even if my all is small.

I always have to remember whose life it is anyway. I gave my life away a long time ago and He is calling the shots. Yes, there are desires in my heart, and they will be fulfilled in His time, here on earth, maybe; in heaven, if they’re not removed, definitely. And being His possession entitles me to all He has, but according to His kindly dictates. I remember His mercy endures forever,and underneath are the everlasting arms. I will hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him.

By the way, Kevin filled my tank. That didn’t take long.




Shoelady For President

Old Lady who lived in a shoe

With the California primary fast approaching and the relentless updates on every primary from Iowa to Indiana, politics dominate the newscasts. Debates, debacles and debasements abound every night on the broadcast news and the talking head shows. Scrutiny, scorn and scurrilous scalawags seem to be the atmosphere in the campaigns of many, if not all.

I’m really dismayed over the lack of quality candidates. So, I think, the Shoelady should throw her helmet in the ring. I am reluctant because  politics is painfully slow. To get anything done of any significance takes decades, and I am an unrepentant hare who moves too fast for Washington or Sacramento or San Mateo or even Pacifica City Hall. But I am willing to give it a try.

As a mom of a mob, where, I’d like to think, we live in a benevolent monarchy, I feel I have the necessary qualifications for run our fiercely divided country. For one I would ensure that we have enough corners in the government buildings to send the folks that are just not getting along. When I moved into a three bedroom house, I was finally sufficiently able to send all ten to corners if need be. I think each member of Congress should have a “corner stipend” with their various other perks.

Second, my elbow room philosophy would become law. The Elbow Room Philosophy essentially means that everyone has their space. Their physical space, of course, in the cherry appointed offices, but also their spiritual and ideological space. The Elbow Room Philosophy is just another name for RESPECT. All branches of government will be mandated to respect each other and their respective opinions. “Can we all just get along?” If not, you may go to your corner. No fighting allowed.

Finally, all members of Congress will have to live within their means. I think each member should clean their own offices, if not for the experience of sympathizing with workers that them may represent. Also, I propose that each member spend some months on Welfare or Social Security as their sole income. I propose they do this in their home bases. Our representatives here in the Bay Area will become acutely aware, quickly, of how difficult it is to live on a fixed income, especially in a geographical area so expensive like San Francisco. I am not asking for more handouts, I want our representatives to know whom they serve.

As a middle child, I have had to broker many armistices in our somewhat tumultuous upbringing, and I have developed an ability to be fair, kind and patient. I think I would make a fine President of the United States. Shoelady for President!!

The Good News According to Erma


Recently, I wrote a blog post titled “Though Dead, Yet They Speak” marking the twentieth anniversary of the deaths of the Monks of Tibhirine and Henri Nouwen. But there is another person who also had a profound impact on my life like those gentlemen. And through her humor and writing, she spread good news to other women. I forgot about this lady who died twenty years ago yesterday… my hometown of San Francisco. And even today, though dead, she still speaks.

The nineties were a blur; from 1990-1999, I had six children. I was actually living the life Erma had been writing about for decades. Nineteen ninety-six was one of the few years of that decade I didn’t have a child. I had one at the end of 1995 and would have another in the summer of 1997. I had two in the eighties and two more in the first decade of the 21st Century. A total of ten. I would’ve engraved and framed the words Erma would have crafted regarding my chosen lot in life. And yet, that is just what she did throughout her career, craft words and stories that highlighted the life of the American woman, the American mother in particular, and all her cares and responsibilities. Women, who felt invisible doing all that needed to be done to maintain their homes, could turn to Erma and laugh as if they were sitting at their kitchen table with a good friend. That good news produced laughter, encouragement and perseverance. Definitely good news for the weary woman.

Perhaps I couldn’t have grouped her with the monks and Brother Nouwen anyway because their content and their lives were definitely different than Erma’s. So it seems. The monks by their lives’ and Henri by his writings changed my life spiritually. But Erma packed a spiritual punch in many of her writings as well, and it behooves us to remember and admire how she wove great truths into her writings.

Of course, we all remember her essay “When God Created Mothers”.  She loosely translates the Genesis record and she nails it on the head as she describes the mystery of motherhood and its incalculable worth. She wraps up the essay with the sublime:

Finally the angel bent over and rang her finger across the cheek.

“There’s a leak,” she pronounced, “I told You that You were trying to put too much into this model.”

“It’s not a leak,” said the Lord, “It’s a tear.”

“What’s it for?”

“It’s for joy, sadness, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and pride.”

“You are a genius,” said the angel.

Somberly, God said, “I didn’t put it there.”

Her words were not just for the mother, “the one who was overkidsed, underpatienced, with four years of college and chapped hands all year around,” but for any woman. Many of her writings were for women in general, and for older women in particular. And for the woman who looked in the mirror and thought it was too late for her, she wrote these gospel-like words:

For years, you’ve watched everyone else do it….And you envied them and said, “Maybe next year I’ll go back to school.” And the years went by and this morning you looked into the mirror and said, “You blew it. You’re too old to pick it up and start a new career.” This column is for you.

Margaret Mitchell won her first Pulitzer Prize for Gone With the Wind in 1937. She was thirty-seven years old at the time.Sen. Margaret Chase Smith was elected to the Senate for the first time in 1948 at the age of fifty-one.Ruth Gordon picked up her first Oscar in 1968 for Rosemary’s Baby. She was seventy-two years old.Billie Jean King took the battle of women’s worth to a tennis court in Houston’s Astrodome to outplay Bobby Riggs. She was thirty-one years of age.

Grandma Moses began a painting career at the age of seventy-six.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh followed in the shadow of her husband until she began to question the meaning of her own existence. She published her thoughts in A Gift from the Sea in 1955, in her forty-ninth year.Shirley Temple Black was named Ambassador to Ghana at the age of forty-seven.Golda Meir was elected Prime Minister of Israel. She had just passed her seventy-first birthday.

You can tell yourself these people started out as exceptional. You can tell yourself they had influence before they started. You can tell yourself the conditions under which they achieved were different from yours.

Or you can be like the woman I knew who sat at her kitchen window year after year and watched everyone else do it. Then one day she said, “I do not feel fulfilled cleaning chrome faucets with a toothbrush. It’s my turn.”

I was thirty-seven years old at the time.

She preached that we can have a second act, or a third act; shoot, some of us can have sequels.

In 2007, more than ten years after she died, the year my first column was printed, I was forty-eight years old at the time. Act II.




Golden Season


Well, how about that game last night? After the slugfest with the Spurs last weekend, I’m certainly glad for the easy street win to 73. Thank you for the anti-climactic, history-making game, and the kind reprieve to my stomach because I wasn’t prepared with the adequate supplies of Tums. I did get worried when Steph took one too many tumbles, but the game was as good as it gets. Oh, yeah, 402 three’s….that was a nice touch.

Then, I was a little miffed when my “authentic fans” switched from the Warriors game to Kobe’s Swan Song and oooo’ed and aaahhh’ed over the delighted boyish faces of Hov, Snoop, Kanye, George and Jack as Kobe hit those last five baskets and propelled the Lakers over the Jazz. One kid felt like it was a “We are the World” world peace kinda moment. Awwww, isn’t that nice, can we go back to the Warriors’ game please? But, Mom, it’s Kobe! Unless there’s Nutella involved, gimme the remote.

Back to the Bay, and this Golden Season of the Warriors. As I have said before, I was fortunate to witness history when the Niners dominated the gridiron back in the ‘80’s. Their 1984 season wins of 15-1 broke the Miami Dolphins’ record of 14 regular season wins, even though the Dolphin undefeated season record still stands. Watching the Niners back then, I knew I was watching history being made. I was watching a new phenomenon of the game, an excellence that hadn’t been seen before, “a thing of beauty” on the football field.

Even though I am a basketball bandwagoneer, I admit it, and I confess I don’t like basketball as much I like football, but I can’t help but express profound admiration for a team whose playing surpasses the best that had ever been played. Excellence, beauty, art, wherever they are manifested, should be highlighted and appreciated. I appreciate this Warriors squad not just because they’re winning, but they’re winning with grace and style, with beauty and artistry. This team has excited many who confess not to be “authentic fans”, many who quit watching basketball for whatever reasons, many who never watched the sport to begin with because of their recipe of incredible ball handling, team interaction, joy in playing and, of course, a little dash of Curry.

Excellence is as good as gold, and the Golden State Warriors certainly delivered a golden season to the Bay – to the world – this year. Now, excuse me while I run to Costco to bulk-buy some Tums and Pepto-Bismol because these playoffs are gonna be killers. 🙂

Photo by Coseezy Strachan – @kicknit

Curry shoes


Though Dead, Yet They Speak

Trappist Martyrs of Tibhirine-1996

This May marks the twentieth anniversary of the deaths of the monks of Tibhirine, and this September marks the same anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen. Twenty years ago, on the very day of the monks’ abduction in Algeria, March 27th – my birthday, I was sleeping in the Hotel Palatine on the Via Cavour in Rome. Little did I know that their lives would intersect with mine in the most profound manner sometime in the future. Through John Kiser’s The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria and Xavier Beauvois’ exquisite film Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men), though dead, yet they still speak.  I don’t remember when I first heard about my brother, Henri Nouwen; but for the past few years, through his writings, though dead, he still speaks,  he speaks to me wonderful Christian truths. What did…what do these men have to say even now?

All seven of the Trappist monks killed in 1996 were French. They were: Christian, Luc, Christophe, Michel, Bruno, Célestin and Paul. These brothers – my brothers in Christ – lived and ministered to the townspeople of Tibhirine in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria. Ministered to a people and country they loved. Caught in the clutches of a brutal civil war, they were killed; and, ironically, to this day, their murderers are unknown.

Often in my life, I come across a piece of art whether it is a song, film, book or even painting that mysteriously resonates deeply within my being. That is what happened when I viewed “Of Gods and Men” in 2012. This film tells the story of Christian and his fellow  monks in Tibhirine while incorporating all that is beautiful in the Catholic Church. The simple liturgy, the acapella worship, the spiritual academia and the rich art history.Never has a movie so holistically moved me.

That they were kidnapped on my birthday while I was in Rome seemed to underscore this connection. I am bonded to these brothers because of their story, but also because of their Christian lives and how they lived the gospel in true simplicity and anonymity. One of the many things these brothers speak about even now is forgiveness.

Brother Christian penned, knowing his murder was a possibility, a testament, a manifesto of his heart. Even though dead, he still speaks to us today about forgiveness and love. He wrote:

Obviously, my death will appear to confirm
those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic:
“Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!”
But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.
This is what I shall be able to do, God willing:
immerse my gaze in that of the Father
to contemplate with him His children of Islam
just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit
whose secret joy will always be to establish communion
and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.
For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely
for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything.
In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on,
I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today,
and you, my friends of this place,
along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families,
You are the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a “GOD-BLESS” for you, too,
because in God’s face I see yours.
may we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

Because of these wonderful, most Christ-like lives, I will pray for Algeria for the rest of my life for my brothers’ sake, I will pray for the love and peace of God to come to this country they loved.  THIS is Christianity. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends, and that is just what my brothers did for their friends in Algeria. This, my friends, is a modern example of walking “in His steps”. I am not glorifying their deaths, I am glorifying their lives.

Another brother, Henri Nouwen, was a priest, scholar, speaker, famous writer and theologian. He left a distinguished career as a teacher and writer to spend time with the handicapped adults at L’Arche in Canada. From there, he says, he learned his greatest lessons.

I first read his book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, then The Return of the Prodigal Son. Both of these books, like Of Gods and Men, touched me deeply in my wounded soul. Before I read Reaching Out, I was independently thinking of getting from loneliness to solitude. As I contemplated this idea, two books serendipitously came to me that touched on this very subject, Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be and Nouwen’s Reaching Out. In Reaching Out, Nouwen still speaks:

To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.

Henri lived the last ten years of his life at L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada. He is buried there.  In his book, Finding My Way Home, there are four essays: The Path of Power, The Path of Peace, The Path of Waiting and The Path of Living and Dying. In The Path to Peace,  Henri writes about his experiences caring for a young completely handicapped man named Adam. Adam was entirely dependent on the support staff at L’Arche, but despite his disability, Henri said of Adam “the longer I stayed with Adam, the more clearly I recognized him as my gentle teacher, teaching me what no book, school or professor could have ever taught me.” Henri asked Adam’s parents,

“Tell me, during all the years you had Adam in your home, what did he give you?” His father smiled and said without a moment of hesitation: “He brought peace…he is our peacemaker…our son of peace.”

Henri continued, “The gift of peace hidden in Adam’s utter weakness is a gift not of the world, but certainly for the world.” From his experiences with Adam and at L’Arche, though dead, yet he still speaks.

I must touch briefly on The Path of Waiting as this is a place I am familiar with. Loneliness and waiting, waiting for things to happen, things to progress, things to get better. In Reaching Out, my brother taught me how to progress from loneliness to solitude. And in The Path of Waiting, he taught me how to wait.

To wait with openness and trust is an enormously radical attitude toward life. It is choosing to hope that something is happening for us that is far beyond our own imaginings. It is giving up control over the future and letting God define our life. It is living with the conviction that God molds us in love, holds us in tenderness, and moves us away from the sources of our fear.

Our spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present in the moment, expecting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination and prediction. This, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.

I am indebted to these brothers for the lives they lived and the insights they’ve shared. They embraced their faith and brought their talents, struggles and humanity to that faith. I look forward to being “happy thieves in Paradise” with them.

Though dead, yet how profoundly they continue to speak.

Christian’s Full Testament



Dial Up for a Day


First published in Pacifica Patch November 9, 2011

Recently, I had the excruciating experience of using the Internet via a dial-up connection. You may be wondering, “Do people still use dial-up?” or if you are of a younger generation, “What the heck is dial-up?” Yes, some folks still use dial-up, and I had the rare (thank heaven) opportunity to revisit that delightful, primitive means of accessing the web. You younger folks, just Google it if you want to know.

Remember back in the “You’ve Got Mail” days when Meg Ryan waited excitedly through the prolonged, grainy phone connections to get to her email? Remember those days when you were just thrilled to have Internet, and to have this whole world of information at your fingertips? I remember, in 2001, when our family first got online.  I was so eager to find information on old books that I had read and be reunited with these treasures from the past.  Oh, and music? Before YouTube and iTunes, there was Napster, Limewire came later, and people had their own music sites like Joe’s Audio Paradise where you could find those old songs that you grew up with. I loved going to that site and showing the kids my music.

Well, things have certainly changed. We have DSL, high-speed and other versions of really fast Internet that I can’t even identify, let alone afford. As I waited for the little AOL three-step progression, I cheered with the AOL crowd when I finally got online.  The benefits of this experience are not to be dismissed though. While I waited for my Facebook to load, I got my Master’s thesis completed. While I waited for Yahoo to access my mail, I caught the first half of “Gone with the Wind” and finally by the time I finished a mild job search on Craigslist, I was old enough for retirement.

I have to admit; I found this experience rather painful. I didn’t realize how accustomed I had become to instantaneous Internet. Are we so addicted to moving at the twinkling of an eye that we get bent out of shape if the Internet goes out or if, heaven forbid, the electricity goes out? I was waiting in the grocery store line and was getting a little anxious that the checker was going too slow. Geez! Maybe those serendipitous moments of pause are gifts to get us to downshift a bit, take a deep breath and even look a little longer at the children who will be grown before you know it because they do grow at high speed.

So, despite the frustration on my dial-up day, I learned a valuable lesson in patience and gained an understanding that I may not want all things at high-speed. I hardly remember when my older kids were young, so I will keep a dial-up mentality and spend time enjoying the little ones while they are young.

Random Words of Kindness


Valentine’s Day is Sunday. Isn’t that a great holiday? A holiday dedicated to showing our loved ones how much they mean to us. We have St. Valentine, an early Christian martyr, to thank for it. His letter to a young girl, before he was executed, is one of the alleged origins of this day. Valentine’s Day, now, for the most part, is a lovers’ day.

That’s nice, if you have a partner. The point of this column, though, is not lovers’ love, but friend love, family love, or just general love. Love expressed in kind words.

Years ago, I used to attend a little prayer meeting with some other parents from the school my kids were attending at the time. I couldn’t make it to one of the meetings and had texted my friend telling her why I couldn’t make it. She texted back, “OK, sweetness.” Wow, I thought at the time, isn’t that nice! I texted her back and told her I love it when she talks like that.

Another instance around the same time, at the Canned Food Store in Redwood City, we were waiting in line, and a clerk opened up her window, and said to me, “I can take you over here, honey.” I just lit up. I love when folks talk to me like that. Don’t you?

I love these terms of endearment; but unfortunately, I do not use them as often as I should, or as often as I’d like.

My friend, the store clerk and many others I continually come in contact with are steeped in this kind of kindness, and not only are their words dripping with this divine quality, but so are their mannerisms and their countenances. I have another friend who is the epitome of optimism and joy. I cannot comment on anything on Facebook or say anything that she doesn’t give me a positive and joyful response. I adore this characteristic, and this friend.

Unfortunately, growing up, these expressions didn’t flow readily. My ability to use these delightful demonstrations of affection is somewhat underdeveloped. I grew up in a household where profanity was the vernacular and “survival of the fittest” was the motto. No meek shall inherit the earth, no turning the other cheek or any other teaching from CCD. Sweet nothings were as foreign a language as Uzbek and crying was anathema.

So one of my Valentine’s Day resolutions will be to be more affectionate with my kids, my family and my friends, even to be affectionate and kind to some of the scurrilous among us. Now, this is hard and uncomfortable because I’m not use to it, but I’ll try.

For my friends, the store clerk and the others I have met, their random words of kindness come spontaneously from within. For me, for a time, I must practice deliberate words of kindness and hope that this habit will become spontaneous too.

Remember, according to a Chinese proverb: “a bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses.” Aw, sweetness!

P.S. Thank yo, Eloisa!

Originally printed in February 2011


Where Do They Go?


“Where does the winter go after the snow?” I asked my mom as winter faded one year.

“Well, maybe God rolls winter up like a giant quilt and stores it in his attic.” My mom answered with a smile. “What do you think of that?”

“I don’t think so, Mom.” I laughed.

“I don’t think so either,” she said, “I suppose winter just goes right into spring like Thanksgiving goes right into Christmas.”

The daffodils blossomed like a chorus, waving in the wind. We picked as many as we could before their leaves curled up and died.

“Mom, where do the daffodils go when they die?”

“The daffodils never die, they just wake up for a short time and brightly wave to us, and then go back to sleep until next winter.”

That spring, we planted a garden. We planted cucumbers and carrots, corn and pumpkins, tomatoes and peppers. As spring marched into summer, we spent a lot of time in the garden, we mulched, we weeded and we got rid of a lot of bugs.

By mid-summer, many of the fruit were ready to pick. We filled our baskets with delicious green cucumbers, light green clad ears of corn, red juicy tomatoes and snappy orange carrots. We had to wait until fall for those slow growing pumpkins.

After the harvest, the plants remained for a time, they look lost and lonely without their precious fruit, and they eventually withered and died. The cucumber vines slowly slipped from the fence, the pumpkin vines shrunk and died, the corn stalks drooped and dropped to the ground.

“Where do the plants go after they die?” I asked Mom at the beginning of fall. Mom, who had been away, answered without looking at me, “I suppose God buries them in the ground where they wait for the next spring.” There was a sadness in her voice like the sadness in our lifeless garden.

Fall descended like the leaves from the trees. The trees seemed to be weeping sensing the sadness that had filled my house. My dad and I raked the leaves while Mom was away. “Dad,” I asked, “where do the leaves go after the fall?”

“We rake them up and put them in the compost pile for the mulch for next year’s garden.” He said matter-of-factly.

Fall flew past like the wind. And with winter, the garden seemed really dead. The holidays were quiet and sad. I went out to the garden after my grandmother’s funeral. The garden was cold, lifeless, just like how death felt. My mom came out to the garden and asked how I was.

“Mom, where do grandmas go after they die?”

“Oh, baby,” she said with tears rolling down her face, “Grandmas are carried to heaven by their Heavenly Father. And though we won’t see her again here, we will go to where she is later.” She put her arm around my shoulder to lead me back into the house when I noticed something on the frosty ground of the garden. I stooped to clear the dirt and frost. The first shoots of the daffodils were beginning to break through the cold, hard dirt.


First Rites by Philip F. O’Connor

Published SF Gate 4:00 am, Sunday, February 2, 1997

In the late spring of 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. was struggling to gain control of the budding civil rights movement. On a ridiculously smaller scale, I, then a cub reporter on the San Francisco News, was attempting to prove to myself and my editors that I could do more than write amusing feature stories. The young minister’s path and mine would cross – more accurately, I’d be thrown across his – the morning I was assigned to interview him at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

Though King had received national and international attention after the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, his civil rights leadership rested on soft Alabama clay. Though later, the NAACP helped fund King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in mid-’56, NAACP officials were publicly belittling the new organization, which they believed threatened their activities in the South.

During the NAACP’s 1956 convention, held at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium, then-NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall called King “a boy on a man’s errand.” Elsewhere, even the great African American leader W.E.B. DuBois said, “If passive resistance could conquer racial hatred . . . Gandhi and Negroes like King would have shown the world how to conquer war itself.”

Such not-so-friendly fire came on the heels of attacks by enemies in Montgomery. Segregationists had bombed King’s and other boycott leaders’ homes. When suspected bombers were arrested, a local court set them free. Death threats to King and his family soon became as common as bulk mail advertising. Police themselves began stalking and harassing the young leader, arresting him on charges that ranged from driving 30 mph in a 25-mile zone to conspiracy to prevent the operation of a business.

As if King needed more trouble, members of his Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that the SCLC would replace, began bickering with each other. Some tried to back out of the boycott, and others charged King with excessive travel and getting too much attention. Discouraged by the problems he faced during this period, King would soon tell singer Harry Belafonte, “I don’t know where this movement is going.”

By spring 1957, despite having been praised in a Time magazine cover story, and profiled in the New York Times as well as appearing on Meet the Press, King had had little success spreading his message of nonviolence through the South. In frustration, he decided to capitalize on his new media attention by writing his autobiography, Stride Toward Freedom, and by scheduling numerous public appearances. He began to work at a manic pace, writing, traveling and speaking. By the end of the year, he’d cover 780,000 miles and give 208 speeches. One of his stops would be San Francisco.

I didn’t ask why I, the newspaper’s least experienced reporter, was being assigned to interview King; it didn’t even occur to me. I was 24 years old and King was only 27. Despite the worldwide attention he’d begun to receive, Martin Luther King still wasn’t big news here. In preparing this article, San Francisco Public Library researcher Kathy Laughin and I found only one news item about King and the bus boycott in 1957, prior to June – a single paragraph announcing that local ministers were sending the boycott leader a letter of support. The Examiner librarian found that the morning papers, the Chronicle and The Examiner (which was then still a morning paper), and the other afternoon paper, the Call-Bulletin, likewise gave the rising civil rights leader – and the Montgomery bus boycott – almost no coverage.

My path toward King began at a U-shaped table called the copy desk. In the U’s center stood a man who never, at least in my presence, cast a smile. I know he had a last name but doubt he had a first. Secretly, I called him “Hatchet.” Periodically, he folded up sheets of paper that had been churned out by the United Press or Associated Press wire service machines or been sent over from the city desk, wrote a word-number on the outside and, without even looking, slapped them hard onto one of the sharp foot-long nails that stuck up in front each of his cowering sub-editors. None of the sub-eds cowered more than I, or had more reason to.

Once, given the number “200” on a U.P. feature story by Merriam Smith about a golf game among President Eisenhower and his cronies, I cut out of the approximately 500-word piece every reference to government matters, like whether Ike thought the Air Force deserved to get a $22 million, as opposed to a $24 million, budget increase, and left in more personal material, like a reminiscence about Patton’s dog (The President puzzled over why “Willie” had always growled at him) and Ike’s mysterious distaste for breakfast sausages. ( “Lately,” said the president, “they seem to back up.” ) I was certain that readers would doze over the budget speculation. “Hatchet” had another notion. The sheets quickly re-descended onto my spike. A small note was scrawled across the top: “Delete everything (two underlines) you left in and put back everything (three underlines) you took out.”

I was soon transferred to the city desk. My first assignment was to investigate the report of a body at the bottom of a lightwell on Hayes Street. I went to an apartment building, opened a second-story window and looked down to see ghastly eyes staring up at me out of a gray face with blood trickling from its mouth. Ack! A suicide, police told me. For months afterward, I closed my eyes whenever someone was about to bite into a strawberry- or raspberry-filled doughnut.

Much troubled, I began to dislike news. News, it seemed to me, licensed any lunatic who wanted to burn down a building, shoot a politician or undress on Market Street to determine what I did, thought and wrote about on a given day. A real reporter’s test, it seemed to me, was going up to the devastated loved one of a person who’s just been shot and saying, “Got any recent pictures?” And a real reporter’s life also went too fast. I wanted to sit at the back of the city room, free from deadlines, honing words inspired by pleasant encounters.

My feature writing debut on the News came at the Golden Gate Theater with the opening of the movie The Incredible Shrinking Man. I interviewed a real-life shrinking man, thoughtfully provided by the movie promoters. As we spoke, the shrinking man rose from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-1, then shrank back to 5-8. Other stories that appeared under my byline included an interview with a talking dog, an article about a jackhammer operator who hadn’t felt the big 1956 earthquake and a piece about a Berkeley sidewalk art show whose first prize went to Betsy, a chimp at the Baltimore zoo.

I was constantly being given advice by editors and fellow reporters: “Features aren’t real news.” “Gauguin drew dogs that were just dogs before he got into all those dibs and dabs.” “You’ve got to learn to bring back the bacon.” I watched the paper’s real reporters – Joe Sheridan, Mary Crawford, Bill Stief and the two George’s, Murphy and Duschek – go out and bring back slabs of it.

I tried.

One morning, I thought I’d done a great job. I’d beaten the rival Call-Bulletin reporter to the only available phone, minutes before deadline for both afternoon papers, with my report of an overnight robbery at the El Rey Theater. After I breathlessly spilled all of my information, the News’ rewrite man, Sheridan, said, “How much?” I’d given him the method of entry, the size of the safe, the cigarette butts on the carpet and could have told him the color of the manager’s hair or the smell the dynamite had left, but . . . how much? “How much what?” I asked. “Money,” he snapped. “Oh, boy! I’ll be right back.” I went to the manager and was given an amount. When I returned to the phone, the Call reporter was using it.

I kept on trying.

A piece of very big news landed on my lap. I didn’t know it was very big news. How could the police report of a pair of men who’d forced another into a car, robbed him of a dollar and then released him be very big news? I typed it up as a one-paragraph story. A few minutes after handing in my copy I was told to make it longer; it was to be the main front-page headline story. Only as I was rewriting it did I realize why. The headline said it all:



I scored a less accidental scoop when I was sent to the Hall of Justice and told to get the story of a bank robbery. I found that the bank-teller who’d single-handedly captured a hold-up man was being questioned in a room closed off to all but detectives. The story was in there. A detective had left his hat on a nearby table. I picked it up, put it on, opened the interrogation room door and, imitating Bogart as Sam Spade, said, “Get that bank teller out here right away.” He was sent out. I introduced myself and put him on the phone to Crawford. Before my deception was discovered, the teller had given his story to Mary. A dirty business. But we had a scoop.

Is the scoop why I was assigned to interview the visiting minister?

Or did my editors see King’s visit as just another feature story?

I arrived a few minutes late at the sparsely furnished hotel room and sat at the end of a long table, opposite the interviewee. His head was tilted down and to one side. When he looked up to see who’d come in, he seemed shy, perhaps nervous. The look gave me one of those up-the-spine jolts of electricity. I nodded at him. He wore a well-starched white shirt, a dark brown suit and a tie of the narrow sort worn in the mid to late-’50s. It was the very same color as the suit. The older-looking of two local black ministers seated on each side of him introduced him.

King spoke in a low, articulate, well-controlled monotone. He said that the Alabama boycott had been inspired by the teachings of Gandhi and that he and the SCLC were now working to begin other boycotts throughout the South. His statement was very short. The older minister invited questions. King’s look had put me off, and I was afraid go first. But neither of the other two reporters, each in his late 50s or early 60s, said a word. In the face of the increasingly painful silence, I finally offered two or three questions. I don’t recall specifically what they were, but I do remember that King’s answers laid out a plan to spread his nonviolent movement throughout the South and then beyond. It was only much later that I looked back and saw that he’d given an outline of what came to be called the civil rights movement.

I submitted three pages of copy, as much as I had ever turned in. I had time to prepare it carefully. There was no hurry. The story wasn’t being treated as breaking news. The next day my piece, reduced to a paragraph, appeared on an inner page of the paper’s first or “Home” edition. (Recently I searched through the late spring and early summer “Final” editions available at the San Francisco Public Library. It isn’t among them, so I have to believe that sometime between the first and the fourth, or last, edition, it was nudged out by other news.

Troubled by the placement of the story, I asked why it had been severely reduced, working up my nerve enough to say “I think that stuff is important.” I was told unequivocally but politely that it was not.

Of course! Had it been considered important, the Call-Bulletin would have sent a reporter and The Examiner and Chronicle wouldn’t have sent tired old men. And the News wouldn’t have sent me.

I’d only once before complained about the treatment of something I’d written. It was a “mood piece” about a jazz musician named Judy Tristano, whose group played soft Monday night music for weekend-weary Beats at The Cellars on Green Street. I was praised for the writing but the piece never appeared. I was told it didn’t belong in a family newspaper. I didn’t like the answer but, thinking about how my mother might respond to the favorable sketch of beatniks and their music, I understood.

This time, I didn’t.

I left the newspaper within days, possibly before my absence was requested, to enroll as a graduate student in creative writing at San Francisco State College. Soon, I was teaching at Riordan High School. I started those new adventures with the knowledge that, at least once, I’d brought it back.

Philip F. O’Connor, the author of several works of fiction, was a distinguished research professor emeritus at Bowling Green University. He chaired the 1994 Pulitzer Prize fiction committee.