Tag Archives: Boston University

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Another year, another Boston Marathon. I first published this last year as part of my goal to fight Cheeto flea by getting more involved in racial justice. My progress has been slower than I would prefer, but like the marathoners, I try to stay focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I am reading a book called “Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era.” The author, Ashley Farmer, is a professor at my alma mater, Boston University, and I learned about her and her book from an email from the school — sometimes those annoying emails are actually useful! It is a bit more academic than I’m used to, but that’s OK. She talks about how Black women were working right alongside Black men to gain racial equality, reframing it and adding a female perspective. And she talks about women activists who make the case that it’s not just the big names like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth that we need to think about, but also all of the mothers and grandmothers who held the family together, often by cleaning white women’s houses, and who “found ways to financially and emotionally support [their] family in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and discrimination.”

So in addition to remembering Marilyn Bevans, the first Black woman to run in the Boston Marathon, I am also remembering her mother and grandmother and all the women standing behind her as she crossed that finish line. 

As a side note, I decided to Google “first Black women to run the Boston Marathon” this year again to see if we had made any progress on the topic in the past year. Guess what came up first? This blog post, followed by the same references from last year. If that doesn’t show that we all have something to contribute, I don’t know what does. Step by step, people. Step by step.

Today is Patriot’s Day in Boston, aka Boston Marathon Day. There will be an estimated 30,000 runners who have either a qualifying time, are part of a team running for charity, or are simply a handful of rogue folks who find registering and qualifying a bother, and good for them.

At 122 years, the Boston Marathon is the oldest, and is 26 miles and 385 yards, which reminds me of the Mass Ave Bridge’s measurement in Smoots — 364.4 and one ear to be exact. For some reason we Bostonians like our precision, even if it means adding yards or an ear. Oliver Smoot, by the way, was a 1962 graduate of MIT who stood 5 feet, 7 inches. You can well imagine how he was used as a measuring stick and that there was most likely alcohol involved. Perhaps the 385 additional yards in the marathon came about in a similar way. We can only hope.

Last year they retired the number of the first woman to officially register and run, Kathrine Switzer. In 1967 she registered with only her initials — there was this pesky thing where women weren’t officially allowed to run until 1972, so they gave her a number assuming she was a man. I guess that’s some progress. Mary Ann Evans had to take an entire man’s name of George Eliot to get published. Kathrine was inspired by the 1966 rogue run of Roberta Gibbs, who apparently jumped out of the bushes near the start and ran and finished the race. Wanting to run 26 miles is crazy and hard enough, without having to concoct a surprise way of joining in. A year later, Kathrine may have made more than 26,000 steps for herself, but also she made a giant leap for women athletes everywhere — at least the white ones. Marathon official Jack Sempe tried to take her bib, yelling, “Get the hell out of my race, and give me those numbers.” Her boyfriend, who was running with her, body checked Jack out of the way, but not before the whole thing was photographed and went the 1967 version of viral. There’s a well-done piece about the story in the Boston Herald.

Cool story, right? It made me wonder about other firsts, like the first African-American man and woman to run the Boston race. And that’s where that little ole thing called racism creeps in. Granted, Kathrine’s story was splashed all over the news because of the retired number thing. And there was that 1967 viral photo by a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, no less.

However, it should not have taken as many Google searches as it did for me to get to those other firsts. I mean isn’t that what Black History Month is all about? Digging up historical stuff that we’ve been covering up/not caring about for, like, ever?

I found two sources, and the second one, the National Black Marathoners Association history project gets credit for actually including a — — woman. Both sources say Aaron Morris was the first Black male runner in the Boston Marathon in 1919, 47 years before a white woman. The first and only reference I can find of the first Black woman to run in Boston is Marilyn Bevans in 1977; and she placed 2nd. That’s pretty amazing right? Where are the stories about her? Granted once I knew her name, more came up in the search, including that she is considered the first lady of marathon running. But doesn’t that warrant her coming up in the more general searches of first women/first Black woman to run the Boston Marathon?

Maybe in running circles this is common knowledge, but let’s face it, most of us think marathon running is crazy, unless it’s a big event in your city and you get the day off. Or you do it to celebrate a milestone birthday. I personally try not to be friends with people like that, but one tries to be open and flexible to others’ obvious lack of judgment.

So today, I salute you, Marilyn Bevans and Aaron Morris. I like you, too, Kathrine and Roberta, but you’ve been saluted enough. You all remind me that marathons take time, effort, and preparation. That sometimes people don’t want me to accomplish a goal, so I have to jump out of the bushes or avoid getting my bib grabbed. That sometimes remarkable accomplishments go unnoticed because of skin color or gender or both. That many times I need to remember that and be curious beyond the story of a white woman’s amazing accomplishment.

Happy running.

 

 

 

Alpha Flee

On Saturday, I, my friend Lin, and my son went on a road trip to Amherst, Mass., to see the Shakespeare Folio from 1623. It’s a printed book of his plays. From 1623. Think about it. It’s amazing. It was on display at Amherst College’s Mead Museum and we decided to drag my son with us to check out Amherst College, UMass Amherst, and Hampshire College. The college portion will be another blog, no doubt involving me mapping out college visits by student-only tours close to bars that open early.

Lin is a theater lover, author of her own fabulous blog, The Creative Part-Timer, and the genius behind the Tiny Colony (TC) in Boston, which alluringly combines the idea of a creative colony with the tiny house movement. I’ve been to TC and it’s fabulous, but little did I know TC can also go on the road. As we talked about our own college experiences on the trip, I unearthed one I had clearly stuffed up into the attic and is now coming to you in full blog color: Greek life.

To all of you who liked Greek life at college and actually got something out of it, congratulations. I was not one of you. When I started telling Lin the story, she, who has known me for 30 years, said, “I wouldn’t have thought you were a person who would do that.”

Indeed.

I’m not, which is how I got mixed up in it in the first place. I went to Boston University, and in the 70s it had kicked all the Greek organizations off campus. When I got there in the 80s, they were trying to make a comeback and four houses were sniffing around for recruits, two women’s and two men’s. My main interest in joining the yet-to-be-legitimized-sorority was to get invited to frat parties. The drinking age kept going up just a year ahead of me and alcohol was always just out of reach. So logically, one of my main college pursuits was procuring alcohol; who are you again? Alpha Phi? Sisterhood, alumni opportunities, blah, blah, blah. Oh, frat parties? Why, yes, I’m in!

And so for most of the year, I and two of my friends Gloria and Rosemary went along, getting our friends into the parties and attending meetings that I remember as mostly social and harmless. I’m fairly sure the whole thing was casual, otherwise I would have been suspicious sooner. Towards the end of the year, though, the group took a very disturbing and serious turn. Suddenly (or at least it felt that way to my frat-party addled brain) an adult from the national Alpha Phi organization was coming to anoint us, tap us on the head three times with a Greek wand, put a sorting hat on us, or some such thing.

The next thing I knew I was being blindfolded and led to a secret ceremony down in the bowels of a college building. I’d seen Animal House enough to think maybe it would be a cool thing, until the blindfold came off and I was sitting with a group of other 20-year-old women being sworn to secret handshakes and passwords. OK, historically women’s organizations were a secret because they were not allowed to exist. And I appreciate that reminder that women have struggled to be seen and heard. That’s cool. Still being secretive a 1986? Uncool. And dumb, like a slumber party for 13-year-olds. So we sat and had to swear to never reveal the secrets. Spoiler alert, the Alpha Phi secret handshake is squeezing someone’s hand to the syllables Al-Pha-Phi, Al-Pha-Phi: three quick squeezes, done twice. There were other secrets revealed, but honestly I don’t remember them. I was preoccupied with how we as women had worked so hard (and have to continue to work so hard) be seen and heard, and why the hell were we hiding in a basement swearing loyalty and drinking something out of the big goblet that wasn’t alcohol and passing it around? Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, they started outlining The Rules. In one minute we went from annoying 13-year-olds to feminist-destroying women. We had to agree that we would dress a certain way and act like “ladies” especially when wearing Alpha Phi crap.

Um, say what, now? I went to college to throw off society’s rules and find new ones. I became an atheist, I drank, I swore, I debauched, I wore ripped clothes and slammed against strangers to the Sex Pistols, I had a stint as the other woman. Why the hell would I want to pack all that back and cross my legs and wear “appropriate dress”?

I kept waiting for someone to jump up and yell, “Surprise! Gotcha! Just kidding! Let’s go drink!” But no one did. It should have been me, and I regret that I didn’t. I considered myself lucky to get out of there with my feminism intact. My two smarter friends bailed after that. But there was one more piece to this ghastly business: The Induction Ceremony. Requiring, of all things, a white dress. Never mind that I only come in two colors, pale and sunburn red, and look like crap in white. The real problem was how ridiculous this seemed to me. I assumed these women I’d been kind of hanging out with would all come to their senses, but they all fell in line and embraced this like a bunch of Stepford wives. Even me asking if anyone found this ridiculous made them look at me weird. Without my two friends as a buffer, I realized too late that these people were not my sisterhood.

But here’s the thing. Despite the fact that I thought it was ludicrous and hauled women’s rights back 30 years, I couldn’t throw off my family programming that quitting equals failure, even if it’s a goal you decide you don’t want to achieve. So I found a white dress, god knows where, and allowed myself to be herded to the high-rise apartment of the aforementioned adult representative of Alpha Phi, once again blindfolded. Seriously, what the fuck is it with the blindfolds? Were they getting us ready for Fifty Shades of Grey? There was white gauzy stuffed draped everywhere like we were in a bad sci-fi movie on a planet with a city in the sky. There  was some pseudo-Greek babble, more shit about swearing loyalty to the sisterhood forever, and severe awkwardness as I realized I had nothing in common with these women. It was all I could do to keep from screaming. Then it was done, and I fled the spread of cheese and crackers and a punch bowl like the Moonies were after me, and went straight to my real friends to spill the whole thing.

For many years, Alpha Phi magazine still found me after every move, which used to creep me out, but nowadays is no more creepy than Facebook knowing you were looking at blindfolds on Adam and Eve.com. Also for a long time I was mad at myself for not being the person who stood up and said, “This is ridiculous.” But speaking up is still a work in progress for me, so I try to forgive myself. These sisterhoods should be teaching that shit.

But now I realize the real purpose was so I could write about it so fully now. If I had quit after the goblet and secrets, you would have been entertained/horrified by only half a story. So thank you Alpha Phi. I dearly hope you have moved on from the blindfolds, or at least are exploring more interesting uses for them.

I’ve Been Around Some

My current job is as close to a corporate environment as I’ve ever had, but given that it’s at a nonprofit hospital, most corporate lifers would laugh me out of the cubicle farm. I’ve worked hard to avoid that farm, and Boston has provided me with interesting jobs housed in interesting buildings. My work spaces have been in two former homes, a four-story settlement house, a late 1800s converted warehouse, and a two-hundred-year-old hospital. In my career, I’ve helped celebrate the sesquicentennial at a college, the centennial at the settlement house, and the bicentennial at the hospital. That’s a total of 450 years. I have definitely been around some.

My first job out of college, I wrote for the internal newspaper of that college in a converted large, old house a little way off the main campus. It had a double winding staircase to the second floor gallery, the conference room was walnut paneling and there was a servants’ back staircase. Unfortunately, I worked in a basement room next to the furnace, but at least it was always warm in there. Because the furnace was always breaking down, we also got to know the buildings and grounds staff well, which isn’t a bad thing when you’re a reporter looking for campus news stories. The fact that my editor gave me assignments scribbled on paper with greasy food stains and cocktail napkins with coffee rings was mitigated by the fact that I’m still friends with two people who worked there—war and adverse work situations bond people for life. Plus, I got to walk into a grand home every day, so that was something. I also learned how to pronounce and spell sesquicentennial because of that anniversary (that’s 150 years for all you people who have only gotten to celebrate centennials).

A part-time job while I was getting my master’s degree in writing and publishing turned into my next full-time job at the settlement house. That job had very little to do with writing and publishing. Thus, I fulfilled one of the requirements for being a real writer. You have to have a lot of weird, non-writing-related jobs. I’ll let you know when I find out what the other requirements are. The settlement house was called the North End Union and was a fixture in the predominantly Italian North End neighborhood from its founding in 1892 to its closing in 1998. It was part of a movement begun in this country in Chicago by Jane Addams to help immigrants, the poor, and the generally downtrodden. The settlement houses offered education and programs for kids, parents, seniors that were meant, depending on your politics, to acclimate or assimilate newcomers into the county. The one I worked at had helped many of the parents and grandparents of the people still living in the neighborhood and you could cut their nostalgia with a pizza slicer. By the time I got there, it was struggling to reinvent itself. As one of only two full-time admin people working there, one of the many things I did that was not listed in my job description was letting people walk through the building and listen to their reminiscences of the crafts they did there as a kid, or the sports team they joined, or how they got to go to summer camp. I loved that. Things I had to do that weren’t so fun, but highly interesting, included re-lighting the pilot of the ancient furnace in the creepy part of the basement that I firmly believe had 100-year-old dirt in it. The brick walls had all these shadowy indents which made it look more like catacombs —for all I knew there probably were people buried there. I worked to keep my eyes on the flashlight beam and the pilot light.

A writer-worthy moment came in that job when one of the preschool kids with a hell of an arm, lobbed a rock that ended up dinging a car pretty far away. The teachers left the Union’s information on the car and before I even had time to call the insurance agency, the car’s owner stormed into the building with her boyfriend, the nephew of a known mobster. My attempt to explain to the young lady and gentleman about how insurance works fell on deaf ears, and she demanded $500 cash to repair her car. While I explained she would have to wait a day or two for an adjuster and she would get a check (I helpfully outlined a rectangle with my hands for emphasis), the boyfriend toppled over a supply cabinet onto the chair I had been sitting on and they ran out of the place. I promptly ran into the conference room and started to cry, which is why I can never use this story for that interview question, “Tell me about a difficult work situation and how you resolved it.” I’m sure crying is never what they want to hear. But that wasn’t the last of it. A short while later the mobster uncle came in, profusely apologizing for his nephew. He also wanted to apologize to me personally, but I was still sobbing in the other room. The director, a native North Ender, came in and explained to me gently, but pointedly, that it would be best if I could let him apologize. This is not stuff you ever can find in a business etiquette book, but I pulled my professional self together, prayed I wasn’t too blotchy looking, and accepted the mobster’s sincere apology for his nephew. I never found a way to work the rest of that story into an interview either.

My next job was at the Boston Center for Adult Education when it was housed in an old mansion in the fanciest residential neighborhood. The building has since been sold and returned to a residence.  A notch up from the first house I worked in, this one had four stories, a ballroom, and two walnut paneled rooms. One winding staircase led up to the second floor “office” I worked in with three other coworkers. It was the former master bedroom and we kept our office supplies in the master’s wooden, built-in sock and underwear drawer. My boss worked next door, in the anteroom between the master’s and mistress’s bedrooms. We were Downton Abbey cool before Downton. There was also a room called the “scary room” on the third floor, and at least a handful of people had seen the ghost who resided there. Because we dealt with 100s of interesting and creative teachers and 1000s of adult students, there was pretty much something funny and random happening every day. At one point we thought of pitching a show to the network about the place. Today we could totally have had our own reality show. Two stories that stand out for me: the teacher who called to say he had to cancel his classes because he was moving to a tropical island on the advice of his doctor. And the time the ex-hippy pottery teacher, who was trying a new firing technique, lit some dried leaves on fire … in the courtyard.

The move to a health publisher was something of novelty in my career. Up until that point, I’d had only ever sat at and used older, donated office furniture—stuff that predated the Mad Men era and definitely did not look cool. At the publishing company, I thought I died and gone to print. Not only was I in a retro 1800s warehouse close to the water, the office furniture was contemporary and the layout was  planned out. Who knew such a thing was possible? I did still kind of miss the built-in underwear- turned- supply-drawer. There was one other downside to the place. In order to get to the office I had to cross a historic and protected channel of water. In the summer is was a glorious thing where you could see cormorants, wood ducks, the occasional swan, and sea jellies floating in after a storm. In the winter… oh, dear god. I’m surprised we never lost a person over that thing. In a storm, the wind would whip mercilessly down the channel, and think of nothing of blowing hapless pedestrians into the chilly water should we lose our grip on the slippery, ice-coated metal railing. But I will say it made you feel alive and grateful to have made it into work and our crossing over war stories were told in Homeric epic fashion at the water cooler.

I now work in a hospital building constructed in 1818, seven years after the founding in 1811. We celebrated the 200th anniversary in 2011. I’m in an office suite in that building, which used to be a ward for patients. Among the cubicles, filing cabinets and printers it’s easy to forget that. Of course to remember, all I have to do is walk up three flights to a room called the Ether Dome, a former operating theater where ether was first used for surgery. Oh, and the room comes with glass cases of, depending on your perspective, the creepiest or coolest old surgical instruments. (I think creepy.) I can also go to the basement, which is much cleaner and tidier than the basement in the North End Union, but all the white paint can’t hide the small outcroppings of rough-hewn stone in the cement block walls. Scratch deep enough, and I know there is 200-year-old dirt there.

So what could be next? Let’s see Harvard University was founded in 1636, but I’d have to wait another 21 years to celebrate their 400th. Maybe I’ll get crazy and find a building that’s only 75 years old–some 1940s art deco perhaps. Seems so modern, but yeah, that could work.

Photo credit: wslmradio.com