Still trying to live up to the ideals
for Community Voices: profile a baby boomer who sums up his generation
By Teresa Leo
Not all baby boomers live in the suburbs with 2.5 kids and have a Lexus parked in the driveway. While some boomers have "come of age" and traded in their fringe vests for fringe benefits and well-rounded stock portfolios, there are a few out there who have managed to hang on to their '60s idealism, who still think they can make a difference.
Recently I met Jerry Atkin, a boomer in his early 50s, who lives in Portland, Ore. Jerry is the friend of a friend, and he offered me lodging in his house while I was in Portland for a writers' conference. I felt intrusive staying in the home of a perfect stranger but was assured that Jerry was "the type of person who enjoys opening his home to wayward travelers, to radicals and writers, but most especially to radical writers." I wasn't sure I qualified as such, but was grateful to have a free place to stay.
The house was out of time and place: It was a 100-year-old farmhouse set back from the road in an otherwise-ordinary neighborhood in the middle of town. In the house, among art from Mexico, Bulgaria and the American Southwest, there were protest posters, leaflets and other memorabilia of marches and demonstrations dating back to the 1960s.
It turned out that Jerry and his boomer housemates didn't have the sort of 9-to-5 jobs that came with good dental and retirement plans: They were activists. They had formed their own nonprofit organization, the Center for Working Life, which trained workers to be peer counselors and peer advocates when companies downsized or closed. Jerry was also a member of his local Jobs with Justice coalition and had demonstrated for workers' rights and welfare reform. Recently, he had worked on a campaign to put pressure on a local hotel whose employees were forced to use toxic cleaning supplies.
This was the very hotel that hosted my conference.
Early one morning, as I was rushing to get to a panel on "Issues of Identity in the Construction of the Narrative Voice," Jerry stopped me in the kitchen and wanted to talk. More precisely, he said he "wanted to start the day off with a poetry reading." Perhaps it was my East Coast cynicism, or that it was 7 a.m. and I could barely think, or that I'd been attending a writers' conference for three days where I'd heard no less than 20 poets read from their work, but I wanted to flee.
He pulled out a broadside of a poem by Chrystos, a Native American poet from the Menominee tribe. He prefaced the reading by explaining that in some tribes, when a child has a birthday, the tradition is for the parents to give gifts to others rather than to receive gifts on the child's behalf. The poem was called "Ceremony for Completing a Poetry Reading," and it catalogued all the things the poet was giving away, the last of which was the poem itself. It ends, "When my hands are empty / I will be full."
After Jerry finished the reading, he gently slid the poem across the table and said, "This is my gift to you." At that moment, my cynicism slipped away. This man wasn't just supporting a few socially responsible causes; he was living them. Jerry doesn't fit the traditional stereotype of a baby boomer and therefore does not exactly sum up his generation. But with Jerry in the mix, the whole is not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.
© 1998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.