In one day, three encounters with the not-so-distant past

Last Wednesday, I encountered several people I knew from Dorchester 40 years ago. Some things hadn’t changed.

It started with my old Dorchester friend and colleague Peter, with whom I worked 40 years ago in the Dorchester Tenants Action Council (DTAC). Peter used to help welfare recipients understand their rights at the Welfare Department and served as supervisor of VISTA volunteer slots we’d gotten, which paid us $55 a week back then.

Peter’s son Danny is caught in the foreclosure quicksand.  He got one of those not good mortgages from Countrywide Mortgage Company, which was then bought up by Bank of America.  Danny had applied to a federal program called the Home Affordable Mortgage Program (HAMP) to get his loan restructured under what’s called a loan modification.

He got some interest rate subsidy under a federal program and a new payment schedule that had lower monthly payments. If he paid the new mortgage amount for three months, this trial loan modification is supposed to become what’s called a permanent loan modification. While this is going on, the banks are supposed to stop on any pending foreclosure proceedings.  

However, the bank continued the foreclosure process and Danny faced a foreclosure auction last Thursday despite having made the required payments. Is this a Catch 22 or what?  
Peter called me to see what could I do to help his son.  I wanted to help, of course, especially since I’d worked with Peter and known him for so many years. A foreclosure is a terrible experience, but made much more real if you know the person going through it.  

I was able to connect him to a non-profit group that works with homeowners on these cases and I also called a bank executive I knew. So, the ball got rolling and his foreclosure auction was cancelled.

Then I got a message that Georgia Hall had called.  Now, that’s not an uncommon name, but I had an inkling in the back of my mind that it wasn’t someone with a current connection to me.

Yes, it was the Hall sisters calling. Back in 1973, they were living in a run-down, six-family on Ditson Street. Their parents must have died early and they were in their early 20s and raising their younger sister and also had one of their uncles living there.  When I came around to talk to people about neighborhood issues, I would see them.  They were very hospitable people. If you came anywhere near their apartment and it was after 4 p.m., you certainly had to stay for dinner.

As I talked to Judy Hall on the phone, I could hear Georgia in the background asking, “Does Lew still do housing?”  

When Georgia finally got on she did have a housing rights question.  In some ways, it was like we’d never moved on from 1973. But that younger sister is married and living in Whitman, Judy has been a clerk at the Welfare Department for 32 years, and Georgia is trying to get by. We vowed to get together for coffee some Saturday soon as they frequently come back here from their home in Malden.

That afternoon, while walking past Old City Hall downtown, I saw someone who looked familiar and we said hi and keet going. Then I realized it was a former DTAC organizer colleague and I turned around and flagged him down and said hi again. He didn’t want to talk to me. 

Something happened back in 1973 between us. What I remember is him secretly joining a radical political party and that really disrupted our organization as he and two others in that party pushed issues that seemed not very connected to our purposes as a Dorchester community group.  I felt wounded because I had thought him to be a close friend and political ideology seemed to win out over friendship.  

I had tried to talk to him 10 years ago when I had seen him on the street downtown and he said then that he didn’t want to talk about it. He’s gone on to do some important work as a labor union lawyer and he may harbor some grievance against me that I don’t even know about.

So all those past Dorchester relationships came up in one day 40 years later. I am reminded of what the novelist William Faulkner said: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident and community organizer.