Friday, February 4, 2011

Bernice Belton RIP

When my wife heard today that Bernice had finally died, after spending months slipping slowly away, all she could blurt out to me was that she had known Bernice since she was 21, which was about 35 years ago. Bernice was a powerhouse of leftist politics in Santa Cruz, California while my wife and I were maturing there in the eighties and nineties on our separate paths. Bernice was a New Yorker at heart but ended up living much of her life in Southern California before settling up north and spending her later years missing the Big Apple. She was our inspiration when we decided to move to Key West and make a new life. "Well," my wife used to say,"Bernice said it takes three to five years to make new friends in a new place." And: "Bernice was about our age when she moved to Santa Cruz and started again."We spent a lot of time around her dining room table last summer talking, as one does, about the past, and complaining about the present. Her husband Bill died a few years ago after a lifetime spent together organizing and fighting the good fight for ideals that seem in abeyance in the modern era, human rights, looking out for each other and the ideals of the collective. Still she inspired us to hope in a better future. And now she is no more.

From the Metro Santa Cruz Archives this short essay with her thoughts on Death and how she would like to be remembered.
When asked to participate in this photo essay, which will run during the week of All Saints' Day, Bernice Belton lets out a guffaw. "Ya' hear that, honey?" she hollers to her husband, Bill, in the background. "I'm a saint!" Well, perhaps Belton has raised too much hell with all that organizing, agitating and rabble-rousing to fit the religious definition, but she is no doubt considered a savior by the poor, the marginalized and the embattled for whose rights she dedicated a lifetime to fighting.

Given how many times she has had to sit down and hash things out with friends and foes to accomplish her aims, it's not surprising what the political activist expects as a fitting tribute. "I want a moratorium declared on all political meetings for three days," Belton laughs. "I deserve three lousy days, don't you think?"

Along with that, she expects a youthful choir singing a song specially written for the occasion. The theme? "Don't Mourn--Organize and Dissent!" Of course, there'll be food: "I don't care what kind, as long as there's plenty--and music!"

Belton hopes the ceremony will give a nod to her "Jewish consciousness and identification" but still manage to be a nonsectarian send-off. Also an atheist, Belton figures that when death comes, it's all over.

However, life and death are put in perspective by Belton's beloved semper virens that tower over her property. "There's something about having a view of the redwoods that gives me a sense of the continuity of life," the activist says. "They've been here a long time, and they'll go on long after many of us are gone."

This was the Obituary that ran in the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

Obituary Notice for Bernice Belton

Bernice Belton, a long-time influential community activist in Santa Cruz
County, died peacefully at home in Soquel on February 3, 2011. Born in 1923
to Austrian Jewish immigrant parents, Bernice grew up in Brooklyn, New York.
After graduating from Erasmus High School, she moved to Manhattan,
discovered boys and swing band music, attended college, leaving college soon
thereafter to work at the New York Post as a reporter's assistant.

Shortly after World War II, in which her beloved brother lost his life, she
married Irving Hochman, a fellow New Yorker. At the end of WW II they
moved to Paris. They bicycled through Paris and Italy, studied music, and
developed what would become lifelong friendships with other young
adventurous American couples also living in Paris. While in Paris, Bernice
worked for the American Joint Distribution Committee and Refugee Aid,
affectionately referred to as The Joint. Once back from Europe, they
continued their adventure by bicycling from New York to San Francisco. They
settled in North Beach where her husband began a printing business. Bernice
worked for the Friends Committee on Legislation and the World Health
Organization -in the midst of starting a family with two daughters.

After her marriage ended in 1963, Bernice soon met and married Bill Belton,
a General Motors auto worker and union organizer who brought a third
daughter into the family. Bernice moved from San Francisco to the San
Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. Bill, her humorous and loving new husband,
thought it customary to have an activist wife working full time. It was in
Los Angeles that Bernice gained the dexterity and skill of political
organizing and fundraising development. She became proficient at both.

Bernice was active with Women for Legislative Action and Women Strike for
Peace during the early Vietnam War years, ultimately becoming the West Coast
Director for the Committee to Abolish the House Un-American Activities
Committee. She "turned our family home into a meeting hall" recalls one
daughter; she taught her kids how to manage political mailings. Later, as
Staff Director for Jane Fonda's Indo-China Peace Campaign, there was even
more boisterous political activity surrounding the family, including family
road trips to San Francisco for anti-war demonstrations. Throughout those
years of "mailings, meetings, and marches" there was always plenty of time
for family camping trips to the mountains.

Bernice loved the active life and warm weather in L.A., and was reluctant to
move when Bill wanted to leave the smog and relocate to Santa Cruz. However,
in l974 they came north, settled briefly at the Villa San Carlos apartment
complex where they organized a tenants' union, then managed to buy a
pre-fabricated house from the woodshop at Fremont High School. This became
their home in Soquel, CA.

Bernice first worked at the Community Counseling Center, offering treatment
for drug addiction to inmates at the County Jail as an alternative to
incarceration -- in those days a radical idea. Later she served at Court
Referral, helping people with fines to seek alternatives through community
service. This work stemmed from her conviction that no good purpose was
served by jailing non-violent offenders, while much good could be done by
the same people engaged in useful work for others.

As a Vista volunteer she was Fundraiser and Volunteer Coordinator at the
Food Bank of Santa Cruz (now Second Harvest Food Bank). She served as an
active board member for fifteen years. Her specialty was charming large
local growers to make substantial contributions.

For another dozen years she served on the Community Action Board, with a
particular interest in efforts that addressed the hardships faced by
low-income women with children. The conviction behind much of Bernice's
community work was simple: "people have to eat, have a job, and have a place
to live."

Beginning in 1978, Bernice was a founder and leading force of the Santa Cruz
Action Network (SCAN). She worked on the Santa Cruz County Jail Moratorium,
the Watsonville cannery strike and district election campaigns of the late
1980s, as well as many progressive Santa Cruz city council and supervisorial
campaigns. She was very effective at communicating respectfully with
elected officials. She was a caring and fantastic friend, a voracious reader
and book club participant, a lover of chamber music, art museums,
Impressionist paintings, and an enthusiastic traveler to New York, Paris,
Prague, Rome, Bali, and many points in between.

Bernice is survived by daughters Dani and Nora Hochman and Nora Belton,
sons-in-law Gary Wohl and John Oldenkamp, grandchildren Daniel and Andrew
Wohl, Adina Belton and Sabrina Lake, nieces and nephews Linda Broessel, Hank
Goldstein, Janet Shirley, and Ken and Miguel Dickinson. For the past
several years her principal caregiver and close personal friend has been
Tracy Rivers, who assured for Bernice a high quality of life. Also providing
loving personal home care were her former Food Bank co-workers Bertha Fierro
and Melody Culver. A memorial gathering will be held at the Jade Street Park
Community Center in Capitola on Saturday, March 26 4:00 to 6:30.
Contributions can be made to the Second Harvest Food Bank, and the Community
Action Board.

Mostly White Street

Every time it starts out with me simply walking my dog cruising along happily minding my own business. Then it happens: I see something and wonder where my camera is, and then I remember it's just a pocket Canon, as it were and right there, so out it comes and then the walk turns into a stop and start tug of leash as Cheyenne finds something to smell and jerks me to a halt, then I find something to photograph and she has to stand there patiently while I get the focus and exposure settings. It's very herky jerky."This estate..." I just couldn't let that one pass without a comment. The estate appears to be a couple of nice conch cottages.The backside of the former Jose's Cantina on White Street hasn't changed much. I noticed the exhaust fan was running madly... ...and it was only when I got around to the front that I realised the ex-Cuban Restaurant is coming back as something else.It was a drizzly day, overcast and threatening rain. The temperature was pleasant enough but the light was pretty crappy for pictures, not that Cheyenne was deterred. She always likes a city walk, as do I though for different reasons.There was something forlorn about the window unit, silent on this cool winter day, sitting high above the street. I always feel lucky to have central air at home which is much quieter and more efficient in the thick heat of summer. This sign had some ridiculous statement about no hunting trapping or fishing while trespassing. One wonders if elk lurk beyond the high fence. Looking across White Street past the patch of green which is listed as a 19th century military cemetery I could see the back of the storage lockers on Gonzalez Lane in the Meadows. Gonzalez is one of those tiny block-long alleys that one only really gets to know if either one lives there or one dispatches the police around town to all the obscure lanes and alleys.Elizabeth Bishop's house got a contemporary touch with a bicycle hanging under the porch. She lived here from 1938 to 1944 apparently. At which point she decided Brazil with her girlfriend was a better choice than Key West with Tennessee Williams around the corner. Considering how cold it's been lately Brazil doesn't sound so bad at all. From "The Bight" 1948:
The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.
There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
where, glinting like little plowshares,
the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
for the Chinese-restaurant trade

Poetry is all very well, but prosaic Key West keeps moving along. On the lawn inside the former Navy Housing at Peary Court we see a weather station, terribly modern and functional of course. I could have told it the weather was about to break and rain was imminent.At Southard Street I saw this line worker connecting a new cement pole to the phone system. I asked his comrade shuffling paper in the cab of the truck how long it might take to connect the bundled red wires and the yellow wires and he looked startled. "Shouldn't take too long then," I answered my own question, "done by tea time." He gave me a sickly grin. Well, there were a lot of wires up there.Familiar decorative motifs in Key West:How far would one have to go to see an elderly gentle structure like this one, in daily use on a street in a North American city?
It's a cold time of year in Key West and lots of people have boots and sweaters and wool watch caps on their heads. Last weekend in the middle of the cold front night time lows were in the mid 50s- 12C.As I walked down White to Stump Lane and then back on Frances I passed a bunch of homes typical of Key West, in style and decoration.
Alexander's guest house looked huge from this angle. Maybe it is vast.
This cat was busy chasing an insect across the windowpane. It gave up in disgust seconds later.Lovely old Key West.
Louvered windows are special but louvered shutters look just as good to me.
This car was filled with possessions as though the journey was more like a move. The sentiment apparently came from Asheville, North Carolina, a hotbed of alternative living which I know quite well as my sister-in-law lives there. I like Asheville real well except summer is about three weeks long and the rest of the time it's freezing cold (by my tropical standards).
My neighbors apparently have been puzzled by a tree growing on my lot, a gift from Robert and Dolly. "Pomegranate?" they said,"I never knew it grew here." Well, neither did I but Dolly assured me it would do fine and so it has. I doubt this pomegranate in Cafe Sole's window was grown locally.
I have no clue what these are but I liked the color and the shape.
And so it went, we squeezed the walk in before the heavens opened up and as the rain slashed down we both were back in the car and headed out of town. Just as well really, this tourist season seems quite busy this year, economic downturn or no, and the city seems packed with people.