Say What? – A Letter With Potentially Dire Consequences

On May 9, 2011 I received an eight-page letter via first class mail from Chase Bank, my mortgage lender. On page one below my name and address the following appeared in bold print: “Your Recent Bankruptcy Filing.”

After the salutation the letter included a mortgage loan number, a bankruptcy case number, and a repeat of my address. This detail was all accurate, with the blatant exceptions of the bankruptcy filing statement, and the bankruptcy case number. I have not in my entire life filed, or considered filing for bankruptcy.

As for my monthly mortgage, I pay it diligently, always on or before the due date, and often in larger amounts than the required payment. In fact I’m an obsessive bill payer, conservative with my very small income, and free of debt, with the single exception of the mortgage loan.

So I was understandably outraged, and immediately called the Chase Bankruptcy Department phone number listed in this bizarre, disturbing letter. A recorded voice informed me that the Bankruptcy Department closed at 6 pm Eastern time. How convenient, I thought bitterly, for Chase to close such a key department at 3 pm in my time zone where a very significant number of its customers reside.

Not to be deterred I got in my car and drove a few blocks to the nearest branch of Chase Bank. There I showed the letter to an engaging young woman sitting at a desk whose business card included the title, “personal banker.” She seemed genuinely eager to be of assistance.

She promptly checked my photo I.D., and pulled up my bank profile on her computer. She made two phone calls in which she identified herself by name and branch bank, then described the matter I had asked her to address.

Following the second call the personal banker told me what I already knew, that the Bankruptcy Department closed at 6 pm Eastern time. So there was nothing the branch bank nor I could do until the next day.

At that point my concern began to escalate. It was possible that I’d be in a protracted struggle with a multiple billion-dollar corporation. While I was obviously at a disadvantage in such a fight, I was also prepared to insist that the bank correct its error. But I felt I needed help to get that job done.

So several hours later, after thinking through my options, I emailed the Consumer Watch program at CBS5 television in San Francisco. I described the situation and asked Consumer Watch for help in getting Chase to fully correct its error, including any negative impact on my credit rating.

The following morning I received a phone response from a Consumer Watch volunteer informing me of the program’s interest in my case. Later that afternoon CBS5 telephoned again. The second call was from a television producer offering to interview me for a future Consumer Watch TV clip. I accepted this offer, and an appointment was made to film the interview at my home the following day.

I had also telephoned Chase that same morning, and was referred to several different representatives, the last of whom promised to “investigate” and get back to me.

Jessica, the CBS5 producer accompanied by a film and sound recording colleague, arrived at my home the next afternoon as scheduled. Jessica’s interview of me was filmed and recorded. And several additional photos were taken, including one of the Chase bankruptcy letter. Jessica also told me that she had informed Chase of CBS5’s decision to televise the particulars of this apparently erroneous bankruptcy accusation.

Over the next six days I received calls from three different Chase representatives, and a letter, dated May 12, from their Home Lending Executive Office. The May 12 letter stated that my concern was being “researched,” and “within thirty calendar days….we will either resolve the case or provide you with an updated status.”

Now, also on May 12 CBS5 television received the following three emails from the JP Morgan Chase Media Department:

“Thursday May 12, 2011 10:41 AM…

• “Our bankruptcy department has confirmed that a bankruptcy was not filed by Mr. Martin. We are taking the appropriate steps to correct the account and amend credit if necessary.”

“Thursday May 12, 2011 10:58 AM…

• “I just received confirmation that we spoke to Mr. Martin. He has the contact details of our advisor in our Executive Office who is taking care of this issue, in case he has any questions.”

“Thursday May 12, 2011 12:31 PM…

• “This is indeed, a rare occurrence. We understand how concerned he was and are taking very swift actions to remedy the issue.”

On May 24, 2011, twelve days after acknowledging to CBS5 that the bankruptcy claim in my name was an error, the Chase Home Lending Executive Office got around to drafting a letter to me.

That letter included the following statement: “After reviewing your account, Chase has determined that you never filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case….Our Credit Department reviewed your loan on May 17, 2011, to ensure no negative credit will report to the credit reporting agencies to which we report…..”

Clearly the help I received from the Consumer Watch program of CBS5 facilitated the correction of this serious error by Chase Bank. The potential for negative television exposure undoubtedly prompted Chase to give my complaint the focused attention it would not have otherwise received.

I hope the clip of my interview was helpful to the CBS5 TV audience who viewed it during that segment of the evening news, which focused on bankruptcy and its potentially devastating consequences.

The psychological stress alone on those having to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, as well as those falsely accused of doing so can be huge.

Thanks to recent ideologically biased rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, American corporations now have carte blanche to financially influence our elections, and they are also legally shielded from consumer class action litigation.

I suspect there is a correlation between the enormous power of corporate America and its veiled disregard for the best interests of the relatively powerless every-day people corporations purport to serve.

John A. Martin, Jr.
June 19, 2011

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An Excerpt From When White is Black

“Mother said that for a long while after my grandmother’s sudden racial metamorphosis, Maud was consumed with thoughts related to its impact on her life and the lives of her parents. At first the teenaged Maud felt a mixture of confusion, anger, resentment, paranoia, and fear. She couldn’t understand why or how the words of an ignorant black ingrate, uttered on her family’s front porch, could instantly change her life and the world around her. It made no sense to her.

“The questions that perplexed Maud early on she was able to answer when she became aware of the pervasive nature of racism and the pain this evil inflicted upon Negroes. For the first time in her life, Maud’s senses became tuned to how colored people experienced daily life, the humiliations they suffered, and the real barriers they had to overcome just to exist. Listening to what colored people had to say about their lives, she realized that even her new powers of observation missed the mountains of degradation colored people had long endured.”

When White is Black is a 191 page paperback book, published by River’s Bend Press, Stillwater, Minnesota. U.S.A. It may be purchased at Amazon.com

Posted in Editor's Picks, Essays | 3 Comments

The Continued Use of Bisphenol A in the U.S. Food Supply

The chemical bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic and resin compound used in food can lining and hard plastic food and water containers, is prevalent in the U.S. food supply. “Over 100 peer-reviewed studies have found BPA to be toxic at low-doses”… “Yet not a single regulatory agency has updated safety standards to reflect this low dose toxicity” (www.ewg/reports/bisphenola).

Independent laboratory tests have found BPA, which is “associated with birth defects of the male and female reproductive systems, in over half of 97 cans of name-brand fruit, vegetables, soda, and other commonly eaten canned goods,” according to a study of the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg/reports/bisphenola).

What is the position of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when it comes to protecting the U.S. consumer from the potential cancer causing horror of BPA? Well, after two decades of mounting scientific evidence showing the toxic danger of low doses of this chemical, the FDA and the National Toxicology Program at the National Institute of Health announced early in 2010 that they “have some concern about the potential effects of bisphenol A on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children,” (www.salemnews.com/articles/January272010/bisphenol_as.php). Clearly the FDA should ban use of the chemical in our food supply, but instead the agency expresses its “concern about potential effects…”

On December 21, 2010 the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill giving new powers to the FDA to increase inspections aimed at preventing outbreaks of disease in the nation’s food production system. Two days earlier the Senate  passed the same bill, but not before defeating an amendment offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, which would have set a six month window for banning BPA from baby bottles and children’s drinking cups. Even this noble effort to protect our infants and small children was vigorously resisted by lobbyists for the American chemical manufacturers, and therefore defeated by their Republican allies in the Senate.

We should never forget the words of former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, who said, “The Business of America is Business.” And with the annual U.S. production of BPA exceeding a billion pounds, we’re dealing with very big business. Is it possible that segments of our corporate business structure view the production of potential cancer causing products as simply a legitimate part of doing business? It appears so.

Currently, according to thedailygreen.com, the Weinberg Group, a lobbying firm representing both the tobacco and chemical industries, is conducting a 10 million dollar multi-media offensive to prevent any changes in the food related uses of bisphenol A, in spite of the continually mounting scientific evidence establishing BPA as toxic to humans, particularly fetuses, infants, and small children  (www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/bisphenol-a-tobacco-lobbyists-47082401).

Evidence suggests that it can take many years, and sometimes the loss of countless lives, before the public achieves even partial health related victories over intransigent multi-billion dollar industries. And the current twenty-year struggle against the potentially poisoning impact of bisphenol A, like the very long war waged against the tobacco industry, seems to be a case in point.

However, we, the public, must fight the continued presence of BPA in the food supply by making our voices heard whenever and wherever possible. Here are a few things we can do immediately to help protect ourselves from the contamination.

  • Stop heating plastic in microwave ovens. Use glassware instead of plastic.
  • Stop storing food in plastic containers, especially those imprinted with the number 7.
  • Stop drinking water from bottles with the number 7 imprint.
  • Use glass for storage whenever possible, and remember that glass made in the USA is your safest bet since heavy metals are found in some foreign glass.

Our primary protection against the excesses of the big corporate market place is the hue and cry of consumers, buttressed by the repetitive findings of honest science, and the efforts of the most noble and persistent advocates amongst us. Only then will our politicians and regulatory agencies muster the necessary courage to resist corporate dollars and act forcefully in the public interest.

I implore all of us to be ever vigilant against the excesses of the market place, irrespective of where they occur, whether in our food supply, medications, home mortgages, recreational pursuits, or elsewhere. We owe ourselves this vigilance, and we owe it to our children, and to future generations to come.

John A. Martin, Jr.,

12/30/10

Posted in Featured Stories, Opinion | 2 Comments

Blue Heaven

Tears filled Melanie’s eyes as she  spoke of the gut searing sadness and loneliness, which resulted from  not having a loving partner in her life, and not being meaningfully connected to her two adult children, or even to the few living members of her extended family.

At times she said she felt completely overwhelmed by this sense of aloneness.

“And to think,” she said, “for most of human history people lived in villages, and experienced lifetime connections to family and other residents of their particular village. Everyone was loved and cared for by others from infancy to the grave and often beyond.” She slowly shook her head from side to side, and the tears spilled from her eyes and ran down the sides of her sixty-six year old cheeks.

In one way or another many of us, but by no means all, will be negatively impacted in old age by the human societal evolution from the tribal/village way of life to today’s focus on the nuclear family. Since my personal experience somewhat parallels Melanie’s, I could partially relate to her sense of aloneness. There is certainly no doubt that an intimate living-together love connection greatly softens the sharp edge of loneliness, and perhaps that is the best hope for the healthy seniors amonst us.

Words from a very old American love song suddenly moved to the forefront of my mind: Just Molly and Me and Baby Makes Three. We’re Happy To Be In My Blue Heaven.

My Blue Heaven was a song recorded by over 100 artists, spanning five and possibly more decades. Frank Sinatra recorded it twice in two different decades of his long career. Its popularity speaks to our primary societal attachment to the nuclear family, as opposed to extended family relationships, exemplified during the tribal/village era of human history.

Melanie and I, along with millions upon millions of others, were no different when we were young. We focused our primary attention and almost all of our energies on our own nuclear families. Now we’re no longer young, and our former babies are  adults in search of their own, cocoon-like blue heavens. And, yes, it behooves us as elders to muster the necessary courage to live the remainder of our lives to the fullest extent of our individual capacities, and to do so within a societal framework constructed for  Just Molly and Me and Baby Makes Three.

Posted in Editor's Picks, Essays | 3 Comments

Tracing a Family Tree: A Letter to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Director, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute For
African American Studies
Harvard University
104 Mt. Auburn St., 3R
Cambridge, MA 02138

Dear Professor Gates,

Permit me to begin this letter with my sincerest congratulations for your contributions to the interracial integration of the Western canon. I only wish past generations of African Americans could have been exposed to your affirming body of work, particularly my own antecedents, who while privately embracing their multi-racial genealogy, also proudly identified themselves publicly as Negroes.

I can easily imagine my mother, father and other long deceased relatives raptly viewing and thoroughly enjoying your television productions of African American Lives and Faces of America. And, of course, I believe they would have been particularly gratified by public acknowledgements of the shared DNA heritage of Blacks and Whites in the United States. Something they always knew to be true in spite of societal denial, as exemplified by the One-Drop Rule.

Attached is a complimentary copy of When White is Black, a family memoir I authored, which was published in 2006. The accompanying DVD depicts a local interview I did a few months following the book’s publication. While not particularly comprehensive, the interview will give you an introductory sense of the book. I do beg your indulgence in relation to an embarrassing misstatement I made during that interview regarding a most relevant date. I inexplicably said 1859 instead of 1659 in citing the date of my presumed first white forbearer to arrive in America.

I’m hoping to conceptualize and write a prequel to When White is Black, perhaps as an historical novel, which focuses on the lives of several maternal family ancestors who lived during the 19th century. I’d be most grateful to you for advice, particularly in relation to fruitful DNA and other research avenues to investigate, bearing in mind that I’m financially limited by a modest fixed retirement income.

I’ve obtained  basic mt.DNA and Y Chromosome information from Family Tree DNA. However, knowing my African origin L2a (mt.DNA) Haplogroup is not particularly helpful in understanding the life journeys of certain predominately white female ancestors over the last several hundred years.

There are numerous bits of my family’s oral history, which intrigue me as a writer. For example, my maternal grandmother, Maud Ophelia White, and her family allegedly lived as white people in Galveston, Texas until Maud was in her teens. Some revelation, or incident, which I fictionalize in my book as an “outing,” resulted in my grandmother living the remainder of her life as a Negro. Beyond that I know practically nothing of Maud’s early life, except her approximate 1876 year of birth. Her father’s name was probably George White, and the maiden name of her New Orleans born mother, Louisa, who was allegedly of French descent, was said to be Compare. Interestingly, Louisa’s second husband was John Hughes of Brazoria, Texas, who, according to family oral history, was at one time a deputy sheriff of Brazoria, and an “acknowledged” relative of Charles Evans Hughes, a Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The material pertaining to the characters in Chapter 4 (Revelation) of When White is Black is mostly speculative. The names Andre Compare and Lila, which first appear in the “Peachey Tree”, page xi, and later in Chapter 4, are pseudonyms, and their racial backgrounds are speculative. This is in contrast to the fairly well documented right side of the chart pertaining to my maternal grandfather’s male ancestral line, which, as a result of the rare surname Peachey, I was able to trace back to Suffolk County, England in the early 17th century. I believe my potential writing project would be historically enriched if I could discover the geographic locations and journeys of my maternal line during the 18th-19th centuries.

In terms of the project I envision, obtaining my complete genome sequencing would give me the best possible foundation for historical research. However, since I cannot afford such an undertaking, I would appreciate your advice regarding other approaches, including less expensive DNA searches, which are likely to yield the geographic journeys of my maternal ancestors during the last 200 to 400 years.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

John A. Martin, Jr.

Posted in Featured Stories, Letters | 9 Comments

The Stranger

It was a rainy Saturday morning in the winter of 1937. I was five years old. We had recently moved to a rented house on Dohr Street in Southwest Berkeley. Earlier that morning Daddy went to work at his then part-time weekend job as a Red Cap baggage handler for the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco, and Mother and I were home alone. I was watching rain pelt the outside of our living room window when I spotted a tall Black man walking on the sidewalk in the direction of our house. I had never seen him before.

The tall stranger’s trousers were torn from his knees to his ankles. Draped over his shoulders was a gray, button less overcoat, which was caked with dirt and streaked with jagged black lines that looked like grease. I could see several gaping holes in the broad brimmed brown hat, which was pulled down to the middle of his forehead.

He stopped in front of our house, bowed his head slightly and stood motionless for several minutes. I could see his lips moving, and I wondered what he might be saying to himself. He then turned and slowly ascended the front stairs of our house. I ran quickly to Mother and Daddy’s bedroom window where I could see our front porch more clearly and thereby continue to observe the stranger. I saw him ring our doorbell. Then he moved back from the front door and stood near the top step of the porch, where he took his hat off his head and clutched it to his chest.

Mother answered the doorbell by partially opening the door. The man thanked her for acknowledging his presence, and he apologized for the intrusion. He then asked my mother if she would please give him something to eat. He said he hadn’t eaten in three days, and he had no money to buy food.

Mother, without hesitation, said yes, that she would give him something to eat. She told him that he should sit on one of the front steps where he would be sheltered from the rain, and she would bring him a plate of food and he could eat it there on the porch. He vigorously nodded his head in ascent, and said, “Thank you so much, Madam.”

I continued to peer through the window at the hungry stranger. He sat very straight, and very still on the top step of our front porch, looking straight ahead, apparently at the lone birch tree across the street in the front yard of my best friend, Harold Takahashi. His head never moved to the left, or the right. I wondered if not eating for three days made a person sit so straight and still. I guessed he might have been thinking about what my mother would bring him to eat. I knew I’d be thinking about whether I’d like whatever she was preparing for me. But I somehow sensed that this hungry grown man was different from me in that regard; that he wouldn’t be as picky as I was about food.

Mother returned to our front door carrying the tray she brought food to me on when I had a bad cold and had to spend the day in bed. Instead of a dinner plate the food filled a large serving platter. She had warmed left over dinner from the two previous nights, chili with kidney beans, ground beef, and rice, along with a stack of collard greens, with onions and ham. I hated collard greens. The tray also held two large pieces of corn bread, a cup of coffee, and a large slice of lemon meringue pie. I loved Mother’s lemon meringue pies, and so did Daddy. And I wondered whether there would be enough left for Daddy and me. Somehow I knew even at five years of age that that was not a very charitable thought, but still, it was Mother’s lemon meringue pie, and she made the best.

My mother had put so much food on the platter I wondered if the hungry stranger could eat it all, and the corn bread, too. Maybe he wouldn’t have room left in his tummy for the pie, I thought.

I watched him eat as he sat on the top step of our front porch. He hunched his shoulders as he bent over the platter resting on his lap. And he ate steadily, repeatedly digging the fork into the mound of food and shoveling its contents into his mouth, while periodically taking a sip of coffee and a big bite of corn bread. On two occasions he momentarily raised his head to the sky and closed his eyes. He sure did like that food, collard greens included, and, alas, there was evidently plenty of room in his tummy since he unhesitatingly gobbled down that large slice of beautiful lemon meringue pie.

After the stranger finished eating every morsel of food my mother had served him, he rang the doorbell, and when Mother answered, he handed her the tray, and thanked her again for her kindness and the wonderful meal. He then bowed to my mother, turned and stepped down our stairs to the wet pavement below. We never saw him again.

Later Mother explained that there were many thousands of men, Negro and White, like the hungry man who came to our door. She said that those men didn’t have homes or regular jobs, and not because they didn’t want to work, but there just weren’t enough steady jobs in the country for all the people who needed them, even though President Roosevelt had created many new jobs for poor people, including one for your uncle Edward, and he plans to create even more. But people like the man we fed, Mother said, are the poorest of the poor. President Roosevelt’s programs haven’t reached them yet, but in time I believe they will. In the meantime God wants all of us to be charitable to those who have less than ourselves.

Mother then took me in her arms and held me close to her chest. She softly patted and rubbed each side of my face. And she asked if I had any questions about what she had explained, or our experience with the hungry man. I said no, but I hoped President Roosevelt makes a job for that man. I then asked if she would make another lemon meringue pie for Daddy and me. She laughed, kissed me on the forehead, and said yes, she’d be happy to make another pie later that day.

When I said my prayers that night, and many nights thereafter, I asked God to take care of the poorest of the poor, and an image of the tall, Black stranger in ragged clothing entered my mind whenever I offered that prayer. And I was very proud that my mother had done God’s will that day.

Posted in Essays, Featured Stories | 14 Comments

Walking and Remembering – A Sketch in Prose

While walking slowly through a neighborhood one day I approached a lush green football field along the way. I stopped walking, gazed at the field, and visions of my boyhood came into play.

There on that vacant field I imagined Shifty George Dean moving clear of defenders along the right sideline, and seconds later catching my perfectly lofted pass over his left shoulder, and nimbly scampering into the end zone.

Quickly the scene changed and I was handing the football to Fast Eddie Porter, who wrapped it securely in his arms, darted into the line behind the power block of Joey Jones, then cut sharply left and sprinted seventy yards to pay dirt, while I cheered and marveled at his blinding speed.

I walked jauntily past the lush green field, beginning to enjoy the day.

Soon I saw a very pretty young woman seated behind the steering wheel of a parked 380 Z, fixedly gazing at the cloudless blue sky, while idly twirling a strand of long black hair around her finger, waiting for something, or someone, or nothing. Her delicate beauty made me think of Joyce Monae, the special one who got away, never really meant to stay, with many others yet to sway. I vividly remembered that long ago day.

I walked on, and on and on before approaching a long, low single storied building with a fenced-in children’s play yard and a pale blue sign with large white lettering which read, MISS SANDIE’S SCHOOL, est. 1979. And I thought of my sons and daughters as small children: Michael and Charlie and Maria and Alexis, each in his and her own way engaged in animated play at other nursery schools around the Bay.

And those were very sweet memories during the walk that day.

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San Francisco

San Francisco Memories

I was three years old when my mother, Eulalie, and stepfather, Lloyd, married on New Years Day, 1935. The United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. My mother, her family, friends, and my new stepfather were all poor people, yet they were fortunate to be counted among the working poor.

At the time of her marriage to Lloyd, Mother and I lived with my grandparents in Berkeley, and my soon to be stepfather lived in a rented room in North Oakland.  Their honeymoon, which included me, consisted of two days and nights in San Francisco. We stayed in the temporarily vacated apartment of one of my new daddy’s friends, a man who worked on passenger trains as a porter for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

My only true memory from that first experience in the City was riding in my little red wagon with Daddy walking or trotting at my side.  Up and down the somewhat hilly sidewalk, I traveled. It was a fast ride down hill, with Daddy trotting along side, primed to correct my erratic steering. I remember laughing joyously, impervious to the chill of the January day. This I vividly remember, my first heartfelt memory of the City.

We sometimes traveled across the Bay to the City by ferry. Once there we visited Aunt Bessie, or Golden Gate Park, the Zoo, or Ocean Beach. It was all so special.

Still later as a preadolescent and teenager, I rode the F train to San Francisco with friends. In the City we took public transportation to Ocean Beach and the adjacent Fun House. Oh, how I loved the giant slide at the Fun House, and the views of the vast Pacific Ocean from the beach. In my mind there was no other place like the City.

As a young, newly married adult, I had the privilege of living in the City, while earning my undergraduate degree from San Francisco State University, where I thrived.

My then wife and I first lived in a comfortable one-bedroom apartment on Scott Street. Later we occupied the downstairs of a two-story house on Potrero Avenue in the Mission District, several blocks from where my beloved San Francisco Giants baseball team played their first games in the City.

The first and the last of my four children were born in San Francisco.  Those were two of the four most special days of my life.

Several weeks ago I visited my very ill former mother-in-law in a Pacifica nursing home. I was terribly shattered by the condition of this once vital human being. To regain a sense of peace and perspective I drove to the Marina Green in San Francisco. I parked my car, then walked through Fort Mason and Ghiardelli Square.

During that walk I was constantly reminded of the vibrancy of life and the natural beauty of my surroundings—lovers sauntering with hands clasped, groups large and small laughing, conversing, recreating, and in the backgrounds, San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and the houses and hills of the City. I was in San Francisco, and once again my heart was responding to the touch of the City.

Posted in Editor's Picks, Essays, Featured Images | 5 Comments