A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Dear Santa

"Dear Santa, All I really want for Christmas is an American Girl named Kit. And for peace in the world. I really like your hat. Love, Olivia. P.S. We should have lunch." (Berkeley)

"Dear Santa Claus, How are you? Christmas is back and I'm ready to get some more presents. What I want more than anything is my very own robot. I want the robot to do my homework and eat my vegetables. I've been very, very good. Sincerely, Ivan." (San Jose)

"Dear Santa, I am scared because what if you get me a iPod and so does my mom? Just try to get me whatever my mom does not get me for Christmas. Love, Lauren (age 10)." (Brentwood)

These are some of the thousands of letters from little children to Old Saint Nick that have arrived at the Oakland Post Office this year from all over Northern California, and more are coming in every day.
Once upon a time, missives like these ended up in the dumpster. But for the past 22 years, Elma Ramirez, the Post Office's director of consumer affairs, has enlisted the public to help answer as many of them as possible. (See the sidebar to find out how to participate.)
Some are hilarious. Some are heartbreaking. But their childlike faith shines through loud and clear. Here's what our kids are thinking:

"Dear Santa, I am 9 years old and all my friends say there is no Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy. I don't know because last year I asked for a PSP and I didn't get it. I didn't get any tooth fairy money either for my last five teeth. I have teeth but no money! I don't know! Love, D'Aris." (Oakland)

"Dear Santa, I write you this second letter because I want to ask you if with your magic you could make me smarter. I will be expecting your letter in a while. Sincerely, Jocelyn." (San Leandro)

"Dear Santa, I would like you to send me a letter this year. I am fine if you ask me, but sometimes I just wish I could scream because my parents fight a little too much for me. But don't tell anyone. Love, (name withheld for privacy reasons)"

"Dear Santa, I like Diego. I wish he would kiss me. Please, Santa, make Diego kiss me. Just talk to him and I will be happy because if you talk to him he will merry me. Love, Isabel." (city unknown)

"Dear Santa, I am a boy who always behaves himself. I obey my parents, I always eat fruit and vegetables and put my toys away. But I am sad. My parents have told me that you are not going to come because gas is so expensive and everything is so expensive. But I know you are going to come because I'm always good. Thanks, Santa. Hugs and kisses, Isaac." (Oakland)

"Dear Santa, Are you real? Plees tell me. Love, Valeria." (Concord)

"Dear Santa, I'll admit I haven not been very good this year, but I have helped. Here's a list of all the good things I've done: 1. I have helped my sister learn to read. 2. I help out at the restaurant. 3. I do good in school. I know it does not seem like a lot, but I think I covered everything. Love, Audrey." (San Jose)

"Merry Christmas, Santa. Let's talk about presents. I was wondering if I could have a Wii or a gameboy. Or both. I don't want to push it. And how is dear Mrs. Claus? Have you ever taken her on a date? Alone? With no elves? Love, Abigail. P.S Please write back!" (city unknown)

"Dear Santa, I'm nine years old. I'm in the fourth grade. My parents tell me I'm a bad girl. I do my best at school. I have second place in my science project last year. I hope you are not mad at me. Love, (name withheld for privacy reasons)"

"Dear Santa, I've been a very good girl this year and I know how to make my bed. I love you, Santa. From Lauren." (Pleasant Hill)

"Dear Santa, This year I am not asking for much, like every other Christmas. I am only asking for a green Terrainiac RCar, Mongoose Rebel Boys, a fairly decent guitar and some Tech Deck finger boards. Love, the best kid in the world, Karl." (Ben Loman)

"Dear Santa, I tremendously appreciate the hard work you do every year. I thank you for getting me a fishing trip! I have become a Weblos in Cub Scouts and will soon be a Boy Scout! When you were a kid, were you a Boy Scout? Did you play a sport? How old are you? Love, Brett." (Pleasanton)

"Dear Santa, I've been naughty and such, but I do hope I'm on the Nice List. I hope you hear me when I pray. I'm trying to be modest and hope to be on the Nice List. It's entirely up to you. I love you, Jordan. P.S. write back!" (Monte Sereno)

"Dear Santa, Can you give me the power of whenever I touch water I turn into a blue fin mermaid? Please? Love, Danielle." (Livermore)

"Dear Santa, I have been trying to find a job but can't find one. My husband had surgery and can't work and is trying to get disability and trying to go through the appeal process. We are staying with a friend because we can't afford our own place. We are in desperate need of your help to make the kids' Christmas. If can help us out with dinner and a present or two for the kids, I would be so, so, so in your debt. We don't have anyone else to turn to. Thank you, (name withheld for privacy reasons)."

"Dear Santa, Will you be my pen pal? I promise I will wright every month, maybe more. Pleas! Sorry if my spelling isent the best. Do you celebrate all the holidays? How many lengizes do you speak? Love, Ruby. P.S. I really try to be good all year, but it's hard!" (Berkeley)

"Dear Santa, My Dad has been awful mean to me, so can you please use your magic to cure his evil alien power because he's gone crazy! Love, (name withheld for privacy reasons)"

"Dear Santa, I don't know if I want anything this year. If you want, you can give my presents to children in the hospital, like books or something that makes them happy. Sincerely, Jordan. P.S. I will leave you some choklet cookies and milk. Oh, and some carrots for your reindeer." ((city unknown)

"Dear Santa, I have been diagnosed with cancer and have been unable to work for the past nine months. Also, I've been informed that my employer can no longer hold my position and that my employment with them has been terminated, and my only source of income is disability. I'm asking Santa to help provide a Christmas for my six grandchildren ranging in ages from 3 to 15. Thank you very much, (named withheld for privacy reasons)."

"Dear Santa, I only want three things for Christmas. Number one for my aunt to find a job so she won't have to struggle so much. Two for a new phone. Three for my mom to start taking more care of her self so she does not get sick and go to the hospital." Sincerely, Atasha (city unknown)

"Dear Santa, I am writing you this letter asking can yo help me and my mom for Christmas. My mom is disabled and does not have a lot of money to make my Christmas be a merry one. All I am asking for is some clothes and a warm coat. I will be real grateful and thankful for everything. Love, Daja." (Richmond)

"Dear Santa, I am a girl and I am already 7 years old! I live in the great city of Brentwood. Of course, that's in California, but I'll bet you knew that! This sear I've been so good that I should really be on the 'Nice' List! Love, Alexis." (Brentwood)

"Dear Santa, For Christmas I want a bike and to be taller and nicer. Love, Bella." (Concord)

"Dear Santa and Mrs. Claus, All I want for Christmas is Webkinz. No candy, no suprizes, no toys, and especially NO COAL! I try to be nice but sometimes I lose my anger and yell and scream at my brother. (I hope you forgive me.) Love, Carolyn. P.S. Sorry I wrote so early, but the sooner the better. P.P.S. Write back please!"(Oakley)

"Dear Santa, I want a real puppy. It can be a girl or boy, but it has to be cute. Sincerely, Jessica." (Concord)

"Dear Santa, Since you watch over all the children in the world, can you help me find my pocket knife and iPod? I will do anything to get them back. Also, could I get some super powers, please? If nlot, that's OK. Love, Isabel." (Pinole)


Want to be Santa's helper? Thousands of children's letters to the big guy to are waiting for you at the downtown Oakland Post Office.
All you have to do is call the Santa Hotline at 510-251-3371 and leave your name, address and phone number. They'll send you a short form that takes about 15 seconds to fill out.
Take the form to any post office, along with a photo I.D. After verifying your identity, they'll mail you as many letters as you want. (You can save a day or two by taking the form directly to the Post Office's Consumer Affairs Division at 201 13th Street, Room 228, in downtown Oakland.)
"We have to do this to protect the children," says Consumer Affairs Manager Elma Ramirez. "It's sad, but it's a sign of the times."
Ramirez says presents are optional; sending a letter is the main point.
"The children appreciate it so much just knowing that someone cares. But if you also want to send a present, that's OK, too."
And if you’d like your child to receive a letter from Santa, that can be arranged, too. Just write a letter to your child, put it in an envelope addressed to your child, and put a stamp on it.
Then stick the envelope inside another one addressed to North Pole Christmas Cancellation, Postmaster, 5400 Mail Trail, Fairbanks, AK 99709-9999. (Yes, Santa has his own zip code.)
A special unit at the Fairbanks Post Office will stamp your child's letter with a cancellation reading "North Pole" and mail it back.
Merry Christmas!

Monday, November 24, 2008

The last Republican mayor of Berkeley

(Above: Downtown Berkeley BART station)

How come the BART stations in Richmond, El Cerrito and North Oakland are above ground, but the ones in Berkeley aren't?
It's due to one man: Wallace Johnson, the last Republican mayor of Berkeley.
Yes, Republican. The G.O.P. dominated the city council well into the 1960s.
That all changed, of course. But Johnson had one last hurrah when he ran for re-election in 1967. He won with 71 percent of the vote, defeating Yippee leader Jerry Rubin, Trotskyite Peter Camejo and Fred Huntley of the John Birch Society. (I told you Berkeley was a different town in those days, didn't I?)
BART planned to build an underground station in downtown Berkeley; but the north Berkeley and south Berkeley stations would be above ground, and so would the tracks between stations.
Johnson, who knew a little something about civil engineering himself - he graduated with honors from Cal Tech - thought that would be a disaster for Berkeley. The elevated tracks would be a scar running straight through the middle of town, exacerbating the city's class and racial divisions by creating a right side and a wrong side of the tracks.
BART stonewalled him for 3 1/2 years, but Johnson was undaunted. At his own expense, he constructed scaffolding at the sites of the proposed north and south Berkeley stations. The scaffolding was the same height as the proposed stations, to show people how much the stations would encroach on the neighborhood.
In 1966, again using his own money, he launched the Bury The Tracks campaign, a drive to hold a special election for a ballot measure that would tax Berkeley residents to pay for undergrounding all three stations plus 3 1/4 miles of track.
Drawing support from across the political spectrum, the Bury The Tracks campaign was backed by both the Community for New Politics on the left and the Berkeley Taxpayers Association on the right.
The ballot measure won with an astounding 83 percent of the vote.
"It's amazing, even now, to think about it," marvels Johnson's friend, Jim Hartman, chairman emeritus of the Alameda County Republican Central Committee. "Eighty-three percent of the taxpayers voted to take money out of their own pockets!"
And it's all due to one man. Wally Johnson saved Berkeley from sharing the same fate that West Oakland suffered when it was cut in half by the Cypress structure.
And yet there's no statue of him in this city. Not even a plaque. It's a disgrace.
When he died in 1979 at age 66, the now-defunct Berkeley Gazette editorialized that the best tribute would be to name the downtown Berkeley BART station after him.
That was almost 30 years ago, but nothing has happened.
If you think this is a miscarriage of justice as much as I do, please contact the BART board and let them have a piece of your mind. Write them at P.O. Box 12688, Oakland, CA 94604-2688; e-mail boardofdirectors@bart.gov ; or call 510-464-6095.
By the way, Johnson was no Johnny one-note. He was also the mayor who established curbside recycling in Berkeley, and, as a member of the BART board, he was decades ahead of his time in pushing for disability access at BART stations.
He was a successful businessman/inventor whose patented portable aluminum scaffolding and wine grape harvesting machines were sold worldwide by Up-Right Inc., a company he founded in Berkeley in 1947.
He held more than 70 patents, including a baseball pitching machine, a swimming pool cover and a flush toilet for dogs.
He also donated land in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Boy Scouts for Camp Lindblad, which thousands of Cub Scouts throughout the Bay Area enjoy each summer. And together with his wife, Marion, he founded Chaparral House, a pioneering non-profit intermediate care facility serving 49 low and moderate income seniors in Berkeley.
Wally Johnson was a true original. And he deserves to be remembered