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My mother was a mayor. A mayor and a power broker and a real balabusta.

What motivated her? She always thought she had something to prove.

“You don’t think I’m smart because I didn’t graduate high school,” she would tell me. “Well, let me tell you something, Mister. Your mother is smarter than some of them fancy-dancy college graduates.”

And so she was. My mother was the first woman on our block to ascend to political office. Albeit a made-up office. My mother was the Mayor of Calvert Street.

She won those laurels with a campaign that was full of trash. She was a one-issue candidate, my mother. Not “bring our troops home,” not “a chicken in every pot.” She just wanted to move our trash cans. From in front of our houses to in back of our houses. From the clean streets to the dirty driveway.

To do this, she started a petition. And, one by one, whether they wanted to or not, she got the neighbors to sign it. When her smile wasn’t enough to convince them, she used stories. My mother was very good at stories.

“Rats,” she told a neighbor. “Trash cans bring rats. Do you want rats in your front yard?”

The story got worse as she went to each house.

“Pleurisy,” she said. “The old man in number 26 died of pleurisy because he had to drag the cans around the block.” That wasn’t true. His liver went bad from drinking too much cheap booze. But my mother never let facts get in the way of a good story.

“The toxic gas from the trash truck,” she told them, “will ruin your flower garden.” She hit them where they lived, right in the gladiolas.

Her campaign went over the top on Election Day. While others weighed the worth of Eisenhower and Stevenson, my mother put on her best peddle pushers and stood in front of the polling place and attacked every voter.

“You can’t do that,” the man in charge told her.

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” my mother said. “They told me I couldn’t come into this country, but here I am.”

Actually, my mother was born in North Philly, in Strawberry Mansion. Standing on the dock, waving goodbye to a cruise ship was as close as she came to being an immigrant.

“We’re holding a Presidential election here,” the man told her.

“Let me tell you something, brother,” she said. “People care more about what’s happening on their block than they do about what’s happening in the White House.”

She was ahead of her time, my mother. Years later, a man who lived in the White House would say, “All politics is local.” And people would proclaim him a genius.

My mother stood there all day, button-holing every neighbor. By 6:45, when the grown men with the red noses finally headed home from the taprooms, she had gone over the top. She had 100 signatures. Not bad for a block that had only 60 houses.

The next morning, as the country celebrated another four years of a golfer in the White House, my mother, petition in hand, went to see our local committeeman, the man who owned the hardware store on Bustleton Avenue, a grown man named Sonny. Sonny was impressed. This was a big initiative for a man whose political career consisted mostly of fixing parking tickets.

“I’ll take this up with the Boss,” he told my mother.

“You’d better,” she said.

And, fearing a boycott of his store, so he did, abiding by one of the basic tenants of the neighborhood – never mess with a high school dropout.

Two weeks later, my mother got the call. The next Tuesday, trash would be picked up in the rear driveway, no longer on the street. My mother put on a fresh coat of pink lipstick and went to give her constituents the news. Free from pleurisy, free from rats, their long national nightmare finally was over.

July 2014
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