Magazine gives a fresh, vibrant voice to the poor: STREET SCRIBES' GRITTY TALES

Redbeardedguy - Posted on 31 May 2011

Emily Gurnon


Monday, July 21, 1997

Lisa Gray-Garcia is poor. She lives with her constant companions, fear and pain. She is on a first-name basis with despair. Yet the 26-year-old and her mother, Dee Gray, have not given in to hopeless silence. They decided they have stories to tell, and by God, they're going to tell them. Out of next to nothing, they created a glossy literary magazine, called, appropriately, Poor. They are now distributing it on the street and in bookstores such as Borders, City Lights and Cody's. "People who are poor don't generally get heard," said Gray-Garcia, who goes by the name Tiny. "We're saying these people and their stories and their crises deserve to be heard." Her eyes a thin blue, her hair carrot-colored, Gray-Garcia perches on a makeshift30 desk in her 5-by-10-foot office and talks about the project that drains her energy and fills her soul. Though she dropped out of school in the sixth grade to help support herself and her disabled mother, Gray-Garcia taught herself to write. Then she went to the library and found out how to apply for grants. She succeeded on her first try. The San Francisco Art Commission gave her and her mother a $10,000 grant last year for the magazine. In May, they got another $8,000 from Vanguard Foundation. Donations of artwork and design services from friends also helped. But the grants covered only the printing of the magazine (1,000 copies per issue), a computer, some of the office rent and small payments to contributors, Gray-Garcia said. "Poor is, in fact, poor," she said, laughing the way she often does at herself. "Poor needs a budget." The magazine sells for $3.95 for those who can afford to pay. Gray-Garcia said they give away about half the copies. Osha Neumann, a Berkeley attorney who helped Gray-Garcia with a legal problem, said he is astounded at what she has done with so little money. "It was completely amazing," he said. "I don't know what the hell she's living on. She wrote the grant to Vanguard and didn't put any money in for herself. Usually that's the first thing people think of." In addition to considerable determination, Gray-Garcia clearly has talent, Neumann said. "There are a lot of people who have extraordinary experiences but can't necessarily write about them," he said. Neumann's own organization, Community Defense Inc., agreed to be Poor's nonprofit sponsor. Gray-Garcia credits her creativity - and survival - to her mother. A personal history on her resume begins, "I am the daughter of Dee . . . because of her extreme sacrifice and resourcefulness, I am alive, I am a writer, I am an artist." The mother-daughter pair have re-created themselves into the mythical figures "Dee and Tiny," through which they have fashioned art installations, performances and the magazine itself. The story behind the two characters is even more fantastic than their real-life history. In the myth, Dee and Tiny are sisters, and the lone survivors of a shipwreck that killed their parents and 11 siblings. They are rescued by a "Hindu Tamal Coast Guard cutter and brought to San Francisco, where they worked for 17 years painting clothing and saved $780," according to their written "history." In reality, which Gray is inclined to deride as too linear, she was the illegitimate daughter of an Irish woman who came to the United States hoping to become an actress. Gray's mother abandoned her to foster homes. Gray, who declines to give her age, eventually ended up in Los Angeles, married to a doctor. The marriage failed after 10 years, and she and 12-year-old Lisa were out on the street - sometimes forced to live for months in their '79 Ford Fairmont station wagon between evictions. Then they really did paint clothing, using the sales to help make ends meet. Skipping back into myth territory (or maybe not), Gray insists that her persona, Dee, "has been married 12 times, including the doctor, and she is now happily looking for No. 13." Reality seems, at times, to be a slippery concept for the two women. Questions can be dangerous things when you are poor, when the world looks for ways to turn the truth against you. But Poor magazine's stories and poems cry with candor. The pair's own experiences provide plenty of material. In the first issue, Gray-Garcia describes her humiliation at trying to cash a check at a bank where she had no account. Poor people can't get two picture IDs, she said, and middle-class people don't know this. In the latest issue, she writes about her desperate search for low-cost dental treatment - about how she felt forced to resort to lies and fraud ( "crimes of poverty" ) to free herself from excruciating pain. In all of her writing, Gray-Garcia weaves an intricate fabric of details. Some are enough to make readers cringe. Other writers and artists, one of whom lives out of a shopping cart, contribute articles, poems, drawings and paintings. But the magazine is not just a litany of sorrows, Gray-Garcia said. It also offers solutions: where to get free or low-cost meals and health care. How to organize a poor people's "bank" by pooling resources. And how to take advantage of Poor's other projects, such as low-cost counseling and writing workshops for private groups, at-risk children and prisoners. "What people would like to see" when they look at poverty "is ugliness," Gray-Garcia said. "Everybody who sees the magazine says it's beautiful. I will not do it if I cannot do it in that beautiful way." In spite of what they've accomplished, Gray-Garcia knows she is still at risk. The pain batters her regularly, like a car that keeps backing up, then lurching forward again. If it's not the latest threat of an eviction, it's her office-mate yelling at her ( "I have TOLD you to keep this door closed!" ) or the ache, sometimes low, sometimes screaming-loud, of her rotting teeth. She and her mother share a one-bedroom apartment in the Tenderloin with the other member of the family, Gray-Garcia's 13-year-old sister. They constantly work to scrape together the rent money through sales of their artwork, T-shirts and the magazine, as well as loans from friends. "It's just hard to constantly struggle," Gray-Garcia said. "I do the art and sell dumb T-shirts. We know we can't go anywhere with that." Plans for the third issue of Poor, which will focus on the subject of work, are stalled for lack of money. For Gray-Garcia, there is a kind of salvation in writing. As an example, she cites a story about her family's 22 evictions, which appeared in the first issue of Poor. " "One Court Date Away From Homelessness' was extremely cathartic and important for me," she said. She was able to sort through the terrible memories of sheriffs at the door, of throwing Hefty bags full of belongings out a third-story window, of losing precious things - like all the photos from her childhood - forever. On the day the story appeared in print, she said, "I cried." For details on submissions or donations to Poor magazine, call 415-541-5629 or write to the magazine at 1326 Larkin St., San Francisco, CA 94109.<


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