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What's a white girl like you doing in a place like this?

What's A White Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This?

Running a volunteer program for tough New York kids wasn't easy. But it was worth it.

I was driving through a desolate Brooklyn neighborhood one day when a group of tough-looking black teenage males rescued me from what appeared to be certain death at the hands of an angry motorist. I was at the wheel of a 12-passenger van loaded with a couple of tons of USDA surplus food and ten members of the City Volunteer Corps. Our cargo, flour, powdered milk, rice, and cheese, was going to the elderly and handicapped who could not go shopping. I had not mastered the van, and at a difficult corner I brushed fenders with a car that had pulled into my blind spot. The driver, large and threatening, jumped out and began pounding on my window. He got a surprise: the doors of the van flew open, and five menacing teenagers piled out and surrounded him.

"She had the right of way!" said one, flexing his muscles. Another bent to examine a dent on the man's fender. "That's old, man. Years old." The others simply stared. Meekly, the driver backed away and got back in his car. "See, Suzanne?" said Reece, the one with the muscles. "We'll take care of you."

It was the fall of 1985 and I was a team leader in the City Volunteer Corps (CVC). Since graduating from college a few years earlier, I had been working at a public television station. I had been doing research for a documentary program on poverty in America, but reading Moynihan and Harrington reminded me that my knowledge of the other America was, at best, second-hand. The TV work took me to neighborhoods like Roxbury and Hyde Park, Boston, but only for fleeting visits. I wanted to get closer. I quit my job and moved to New York.

CVC, which in 1985 was only a year old, bills itself as a model national service program. Like other youth corps throughout the country, it recruits young people to do public service work for little pay, but with the promise of other rewards: solid work experience, scholarship money, and a chance to care for others. Unlike most other youth corps, which focus on backwoods conservation, CVC was designed to test youth service in an urban center. In addition to fixing up parks and buildings, volunteers tutor in schools, assist the frail elderly, help the handicapped, and feed the homeless. Similar programs have subsequently spread to other cities, including Boston and Philadelphia.

Supporters of national service programs can turn misty-eyed about the values of "community" and "service" such programs are meant to instill. I had a lot of that mist in me too when I joined CVC, but I soon learned that "community" and "service" meant reining in the restless and the rageful: firing volunteers for being absent, for stealing, or for acts of violence. I had no idea how much discipline my job would require, or how I would hurt when a graduate from my team squandered a bonus on gold jewelry instead of saving it for college or wound up jobless or on crack. In the end, I did feel that national service can promote these democratic values: we did become a community, and we did serve. But make no mistake, it was bruising.

The Corps contained about 700 volunteers when I joined. All New York City teenagers between the ages of 17 and 20 qualified if they had no criminal charges pending and cleared a drug test. While one of the Corps's stated goals was to recruit volunteers of all economic backgrounds and ethnic groups, 96 percent were black or Hispanic, most from poor neighborhoods. Seventy-five percent were high school dropouts. Some were fathers and mothers on public assitance. Some had had minor, or not-so-minor, brushes with the law. Many were upwardly mobile, recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Central America, or Southeast Asia who saw the Corps as an Americanizing experience--and a place to learn English. Mayor Koch, who started the program, had envisioned CVC as a social equalizer, but college-bound whites were not beating a path to CVC's door.

City Volunteers (CVs) work full time for a year in teams of 10 to 15. They also go to school at night, either preparing for college, for the high school equivalency exam, or studying English or basic literacy.

To promote esprit de corps, the volunteers are required to wear a uniform. This caused small rebellions: "accidentally" spilling paint on the sleeves, refusing to hem the pants, tearing off the logo. But others used their meager stipend--$80 a week--to have it professionally cleaned and pressed.

With a stipend so low, most live at home, but the big incentive is the promise of a $5,000 scholarship or $2,500 in cash if they stay a year. Even so, when I began at CVC only a quarter lasted a full year. (Today, 33 percent complete the program.) Roughly half of those who leave are asked to do so; the other half drop out. Of those who do graduate, only 6 percent take the full scholarship option. Another 13 percent take part cash and part scholarship. The rest take the cash in lump sum, many cashing their checks the day they receive them. Reece called me a month after he graduated to confess, sheepishly, that he had already spent his entire $2,500: he'd bought a bicycle, some gold, some leather pants.

Donut argue with me

My first day in the field, I was issued my own uniform: gray polyester chinos, heavy work boots, a baseball cap, gray bomber jacket, a red belt, and a red pin-striped shirt with an apple-shaped logo and epaulets to denote my rank. The pants were too long, so I hemmed them with scotch tape.

My assignment was to take over Team 17, whose leader, Reggie, had suddenly resigned. He was twice my size and carried a physical education degree and a don't-mess-with-me attitude. I didn't like his way of maintaining order. I had wonderful visions of my own style of leadership being different--firm but friendly, hands-on, leading by example. By using the carrot rather than the stick, I imagined I would make the volunteers want to do good.

Fat chance. I would have to begin with rules--not reasoning, not democracy, just letting everybody know I was boss. I was not used to this--in the first two months, I lost almost ten pounds because my stomach was in such knots that I simply couldn't eat.

I had a couple of days to observe Reggie before taking over. The first day, he delivered a harangue that lasted 90 minutes. They were in trouble for leaving early when he wasn't there. I got a chance to look some of the players over. They were a motley crew.

Tony was young and eager-looking, with a skimpy moustache. BeeBee was big and striking. She had narrowed her uniform pants to make them tightfitting, and during Reggie's tirade she peered into a pocket mirror and adjusted her eye makeup. Rene kept shifting in his chair and making exasperated faces; Rhonda was asleep. Suzanne, pale and younglooking, with bright red hair, sat outside the circle against the wall. Brown, who had nappy hair and wore a large pendant in the shape of Africa, kept raising his hand to ask irrelevant questions. Zina was seven months pregnant--she could no longer wear her uniform pants. Later, I would learn to recognize pregnancies by one of the earliest symptoms: an open clasp on the snugly cut uniform pants.

I asked Reggie to show me how the team did P.T.--daily physical training was a required feature of life in the Corps. Reggie obliged, but by the team's response I got the impression that they did not do it very often. We walked out to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and Reggie sat on a wall to watch while Rick led them through a series of halfhearted stretches and calisthenics.

No wonder they won't put any energy into it, I thought, if he won't do it himself. The next day, with Reggie gone, I led the team myself in exercises I remembered from, of all places, the Harvard fencing team. They barely tried to follow. Brown stood backwards. "I don't need to look, Suzanne. I can see out of the corner of my eye." When we got to jumping jacks, he would only bounce a little in place. "Can't do those. I got a loose stomach." Rhonda did arm circles like she had a pair of broken wings. BeeBee: "I can't jump, Suzanne. I got my ministration." I decided it would take time for my enthusiasm to rub off.

The next day, however, I scored a minor victory--Reggie-style. Rene, a former Puerto Rican gang member who had hung up his colors and claimed to have been born again, arrived 15 minutes late, after we had all begun P.T. in front of the hospital. He glanced at the team and walked inside. Five minutes later, he re-emerged and leaned casually against the wall to watch us. He was eating a sugar donut. All eyes turned to me.

I started them on 150 counts of running in place and walked over to Rene. We stared at each other. "Are you planning to join us?"

"I ain't finish my breakfast."

"It's too late for breakfast now. Put it away."

Rene raised his voice. "How you expect me to exercise without eating nothing?"

I thought for a minute, then discarded the temptation to reason with him. "Either put it away and join us now, or go home."

Rene looked at me, looked sorrowfully at his half-eaten donut, then stuffed it in his jacket pocket and started running.

Dean wrote me a piece of advice. "I have some friends on the team...if they were to get a real job and the employer told them to do something they don't like, they might get fired. I think you shouldn't let no one get over."

Not everyone wanted to get over. In those early days Rick, the serious one who had demonstrated P.T. for me, often led the exercise sessions. New to the Corps, he wrote in his journal that the team was too immature and that he felt out of place. He prayed for the strength to stick with it. A few weeks after I started, Rick decided to quit the Corps and get a job. I tried to convince him to stay, but secretly I felt he had made a wise decision.

The next one to leave did not go voluntarily. Kenny had made me awkward from the start. The first thing he did when we met, in the elevator at Methodist Hospital, was check my hands to see if I was married. Later, when Reggie formally introduced me to the team, he warned, "Kenny thinks he's real macho, God's gift to the ladies. He thinks he's gonna have an easy time now he's got a lady team leader." Suddenly, Kenny's gold-toothed smile was a danger. Later that day he sidled up to me, put his arm around me, and murmured, "We gonna be real good friends." Sharply, I returned, "You better watch it." He slunk off angrily, and I felt ashamed. The next day I apologized to Kenny for being short with him, and said I wanted to be friends, "just not that kind." He beamed and thrust out his hand to shake.

The Dragon Lady's stains

Kenny wasn't around long; within two weeks he'd been separated--Corps vernacular for fired. I did not feel the anguish over losing Kenny that I would feel over later separations. He had stolen money from an old lady while dusting her bureau.

After questioning both of the boys who had been in Mrs. Sheridan's house the day she was robbed, I called a team meeting and everyone trooped into a small room. They were shocked. "A quarter I can see--but $200? That's messed up." Suspicious of Kenny: "Where'd you get that gold necklace? I didn't see that last week." Some of the reactions were against me: "Woulda never happened if Reggie was here." They asked me to leave the room. I went out, and Brown asked me to close the door. Later that day, Brown and Nancy pulled me aside. "You oughta talk to Dean," Nancy said. "He saw Kenny with a lotta money." Brown: "You gotta get them apart. Push them!" My instincts told me Kenny had taken the money, but I was afraid to play the arbiter.

I did question Kenny and Dean, each alone, and Dean said he had seen Kenny with two $100 bills--the denomination stolen. The CVs got only $80 a week. Kenny did not confess. I asked him to look me in the eyes and tell me he didn't take the money. He did. I fired him. I don't know what went on in that team meeting, and I can only guess that Kenny had never achieved the trust of the team. In later instances, I found that in most cases teammates would back one another up--even lie for each other. If I saw these situations as a test of their loyalty to me, or of how well my admonitions to honesty had penetrated, I was usually disappointed.

After Kenny's theft, the hospital we were working out of--providing assistance to homebound seniors--considered discontinuing the project, but they decided to give us another chance. Each day the team, organized in pairs, trooped into the volunteer office of the hospital to collect train and bus tokens to commute to their assignments. We worked out elaborate charts that plotted each client's schedule and needs, as well as each CV's class times.

The clients were mostly single women, a few couples. Most lived in small walkup apartments, in neighborhoods up and down the south side of Brooklyn: Park Slope, Sunset Park, Bay Ridge. Some were very poor; some seemed quite well off. All were white, and many were immigrants from northern Europe. Most of them were afraid of the City Volunteers. I always went to the home to introduce the volunteers on the first visit, and, in the first weeks of the project, they often called the Home Care Office to request me as a volunteer. Over time however, they grew to understand that, despite their dark faces, the volunteers were not hoodlums.

Of all the CVs, Dean was the most beloved by his clients. Dean had joined the Corps almost immediately upon his arrival in the U.S.--in fact, his mother, who was living in New York, had signed him up while he was still with his father in Trinidad. Sometimes I would pay a surprise visit to find Dean doing jobs he had not even been asked to do: washing a floor that he had washed only three days earlier. While he vacuumed floors his partner, Rhonda, often sat and fanned herself, or dozed. Dean completed a year in the Corps. After graduation, he learned that the colleges would not credit his Trinidadian high school diploma, so he took the equivalency exam--and failed. Since then, he has been living at home doing construction work and preparing to take the exam again. He has saved $8,000 toward college.

Tony, who was small and also hard-working and wanted to become a cop, was paired with Rene, the ex-gang member with the temper. They called each other "homebody"--they came from the same neighborhood--and Tony was often the only one who could calm Rene down. One day when Rene was absent, I went out as Tony's partner. Our client was a woman we called "the Dragon Lady," since she was impossible to please. Unlike most, she placed no magic trust in me because of my white face. She sent me to the store to pick up some frozen vegetables and fabric softener. When I returned, she counted her change carefully, then looked up. "There's at least a dollar missing," she said. I felt sick--I was not accustomed to being under suspicion. I began to protest, just as Tony reentered the room. "How much money did I give her?" she asked Tony. "Eight dollars," he remembered. "She didn't give me enough change," snarled the Dragon Lady. Tony pulled out his journal and a pencil, and I handed him the receipt. He did the calculations, and the Dragon Lady was satisfied.

"Don't worry about it," Tony said as we headed down to the laundry. "She does that all the time." I folded clothes and watched Tony earnestly scrubbing the Dragon Lady's stained and yellowing garments. I marveled.

Tony, like all CVs, was required to keep a journal. I marveled again when he showed me what he'd written about his visits to another Park Slope home: "I like Mr. Subie, you could say I have gotten attached to him. On Wednesday it was his birthday, he made 86 years. We had a party with lots of laughs and warmth. I feel bad when we leave. Especially on Fridays because he always says now I'm going to be alone again. Being alone is bad not having no one to talk to, to hold, to love or laugh with."

I lost track of Tony after he graduated. The last time we spoke, he told me he had signed up for the auxiliary police force. Rene dropped out of CVC after six months. He could not get along with the team and often showed up late, or not at all. He re-enrolled in his high school, then dropped out again. Later, I heard he was driving a van for his church.

"I miss my girl"

Camp Wel-Met, the Parris Island of CVC, is where team leaders and volunteers get their training. I had hoped to go there before beginning my field service, but instead I was given a team to supervise immediately and was not trained until three months later. The camp, a remote huddle of cabins in the Catskills, is not only a training ground but a place to screen out volunteers who don't have what it takes. Ten to 20 percent of the recruits ask to leave, or are told to, during what one team leader called "a seven-day stress test." After a full year in the Corps, if you ask the grads what they are proudest of, many will tell you, "Making it through training." In fact, for my first three months, I lacked authority in some volunteers' eyes because I had not yet met the test.

By the time I went to camp, I was more fearful than excited. The more boastful team leaders (T.L.s) had impressed me with stories of being challenged by the new recruits and demonstrating their toughness. "I always N.B.O. at least one," said one T.L., referring to the training staff's policy of sending those who break the rules on the Next Bus Out. "It shows the others I mean business."

The team leaders go to camp the day before the recruits so that all is ready when they arrive. On the first morning, we heard the three buses honk their horns just before they got to camp. As they rounded the bend, we moved out in formation. One hundred-thirty teenagers rolled off the buses, looking dazed and carsick, and traipsed down the path where we were stationed every six feet. They had to walk between us--the idea was to intimidate any troublemakers and prevent anyone from stashing drugs in the woods where they could retrieve them after the baggage search.

The baggage search was one of the most depressing experiences I had in my year as team leader or in the subsequent 17 months I spent as an administrator in the Corps. Twenty suitcases had to be dismantled entirely--socks unrolled, pants pockets and hems checked, bras and panties fingered and squeezed, jars and bottles sniffed and scrutinized. Some of the trainees had packed as if for several months' stay. Others had very few clothes: a couple of shirts, a thin sweater, one pair of pants. One girl had washed everything she owned and packed it wet--presumably she did not have access to a dryer. The girls eyed me nervously and shifted from foot to foot, but they were cooperative. I think I was more conscious of the violation of their privacy than they were. But the search was not in vain. One young man had a vial of crack in his bag; another found the experience so trying that he cursed at one of the trainers. The two went on the Next Bus Out.

I was assigned 17 recruits, all new to one another. All but one were black or Hispanic. They included a boy who was taking a year off from the City University to gain direction and a scholarship; a woman who had grown up on a New Mexico Indian reservation, moved with her mother and her own baby to Queens, served time on Riker's Island for throwing a home-made pipe bomb into a housing project, and joined the Corps to get her act together; a recent immigrant who cried one night out of fear that his grandmother, still in Haiti, was under attack; and a girl who, despite endless counseling, had dropped out of high school. Our goal was to form a team in spirit as well as in name. As for why I was there, some of them wondered. Those who had heard of Harvard felt sure I could be earning more money elsewhere. And why would I leave a glamorous TV job? Either I'd been fired or I must be a sucker.

The first night, I asked the group to set a goal for the week. They chose "no N.B.O.s"--they would help each other make it through the seven days. One of the first challenges was to get the whole team over a 13-foot wall, without ropes or ladders. Those who had gone over could not help those who had not, so the last person had to scale the wall in a flying leap. On most training teams, there is at least one tall athlete for whom this is no sweat. On our team, as on most, there was also one extremely overweight volunteer who had to face down many fears and who required both the emotional and physical support of the team to "make it." Yolanda cried a good deal before stepping up into the interlaced fingers of her teammates. They had to do most of the work for her--the emotional effort of putting herself in that situation was so great. She was hauled limply over the top by Reece, who was sitting atop the wall. Afterward she was resplendent.

On the next-to-last day of camp, the team was scheduled to meet the "zip wire"--a much-touted challenge. It involves strapping yourself into a harness, climbing a 50-foot ladder, then jumping off a platform to glide along a wire stretched 300 feet across a lake. It's no Evel Knievel feat, but it does require overcoming your fear of jumping. As we were waiting our turns, I noticed Reece standing apart from the group, his head bowed against a tree. It

was bitterly cold, and he had only a thin winter jacket. I thought perhaps he was beginning to suffer from frostbite, or perhaps he was frightened of the zip. After I sat with him for a long while, he finally spoke, in a rough whisper. "I never had people pulling for me like this. I miss my girl, and I want to go back, but it's not like this in Brooklyn."

The team made their goal of no N.B.O.s, and at the graduation ceremony they were recognized for that accomplishment. We all hugged; a few of us even cried.

Mike's big stick

Harold was one of five members of my training team who joined my permanent team back in New York City. He lived with his mother and many of his ten brothers and sisters in the Bronx. He possessed a glorious smile and a talent for comedy. He was also often nasty, rude, and full of rage. And, more than any other volunteer I met, Harold had an exquisite sensitivity to injustice. A woman we worked with once said to him, "Harold, you are a righteous brother." Harold asked me, one day when we were giving an iron fence in Kissena Park a fresh coat of black paint, how I would feel if the black paint spilled on my white skin. "Would you be mad? Would you be ashamed?"

I fired Harold for striking out at a white woman who "dissed" him--showed him disrespect. The team was manning voter registration booths in Bushwick, one of Brooklyn's most destitute neighborhoods. We saw only one white woman all day. Somehow, an altercation developed between Harold and this woman, who looked like a schoolmarm, and she, defiant, ripped up her registration form. Harold leaped at her, screaming obscenities. Tony had to hold him back. Harold told me he would have expected me to take the white person's side. I was deeply hurt. Later, to my surprise, he said, "I'm sorry I said that." I nearly cried.

Mike, like Harold, had grown up in a tough neighborhood: Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He had served time on Riker's Island for repeated grafitti offenses. He had a fashionable Louis Vuitton suit of denim lined with leather, and one warm day in April he came to paint a mile-long park fence wearing a fur jacket. "The lock on my closet's broken and if I don't wear it, my brother will steal it," he said. Mike, who considered himself a ladies' man, was surprised when I told him I was only 25 years old. "My girlfriend's 27," he said. "She's got big stomach." Sometimes he called me Mommy.

Despite the fact that his girlfriend was pregnant, Mike fell for another member of the team, named Lucy. While "cohabitation" was frowned upon in the Corps, it was always a strong possibility. In this case it was doubly illicit, since both Mike and Lucy were already parents. He wrote in his journal once that Lucy had told on him to his girl. "I had to lie my ass off," he wrote, "and guess what? I got out of it."

Lucy was pretty and sassy, Puerto Rican, with long, shining black hair. At 17, she had a two-year-old child, Liliana, whom she talked about incessantly. On Fridays, Lucy would cash her stipend immediately and buy Pampers. Lucy combined a surprising maturity with bouts of extreme childishness. Once, when she was angry with me, she put on her Walkman and began singing loudly, finally jumping up on a dumpster and dancing in a frenzy.

Most often, however, I was a sister, and we got along best when I gossiped with her and entertained her suggestions on how to do my hair. (She suggested a generous slathering of Vaseline.) There were times when Lucy showed tremendous strength--and the quality of her work was impeccable.

One morning I ran into Mike on the L train to Bushwick, and we talked about Lucy as we rode together for a couple of stops. Mike said that Lucy had been bothered by a man at the subway station the previous day and had asked him to stay near her. I knew the story and also what Mike didn't know: that the man was Lucy's father.

The previous day, Lucy had breathlessly told me a man in the station had harassed her, said she was his daughter, and that she had stolen his wallet. He tugged at her necklace, grabbed her purse, and threw it on the track. Lucy giggled about it in front of the others and acted incredulous but somehow let me know there was more to the story, so I followed her when she went to the ladies' room. She dissolved into tears. "Suzanne...that was my father!"

Lucy's parents had been estranged since she was small. Months earlier, in the confessional atmosphere of training camp, Lucy told me that when she was pregnant with Liliana, she had traveled out to a housing project in Coney Island where her grandmother lived to get her father's address. When he saw her, however, he had cursed at her and said she was not his child.

When Mike and I got off the train at Bushwick Avenue that morning, we saw Lucy walking toward us from the other end of the platform. She looked gray. "It's that man," she said, and looked away. A man was following her, calling drunkenly. He seemed too far gone to be dangerous. I tried to distract him.

Mike disappeared. The man followed me down the rickety stairway. Once down, I turned to him, just as Mike appeared from around the corner of an abandoned building, carrying a long, splintered wooden plank. He brought it across Lucy's father's face with a crack that would echo in my head for weeks afterward. The man crumpled in a doorway.

In a moment, Mike was gone. Lucy stood rooted to the spot, eyes wide. And then she began screaming, with tears streaming down her face, "It was your own fault! It was your own fault!"

I suppose his nose was broken, for he bled profusely, but he probably felt little. I left him as soon as an ambulance had been called. Mike was in a sort of shock--he couldn't believe the man whose face he had smashed was his girlfriend's father. I tried to console him; he was just trying to protect Lucy. "And you!" he said.

I reported the incident to my supervisor, who reported it to the director of operations. They decided that Mike should be separated for a "criminal act." Three weeks later, Lucy telephoned the director of operations. She said that what had happened was her fault. She had asked Mike to protect her. She had not told him that the man was her father. Mike was reinstated in the Corps. Until then, I hadn't realized that Lucy had orchestrated the whole event. Perhaps she had not realized it either.

Soon after, Mike and Lucy both reached their sixth month in the Corps. They dropped out, despite their initial intentions of staying a year. Lucy used her $1,000 "readjustment allowance" to buy a bedroom set for Liliana. When I last spoke with her, she was working the phones for Sears, Roebuck. I hear she had a second baby, by the same father as the first. Mike now works in a midtown Manhattan mailroom and studies electrical installation at night.

Crime and punishment

My last CVC project had us tutoring elementary school children at P.S. 397 in East Flatbush. The room in which we held our meetings was also used to store the candy the children were selling to raise money for the school. A report reached me that Susan had been stealing boxes of the candy--this after having been suspended three times and having lied to me on countless other occasions. Because she was cool (she wore the right jewelry; she knew where the parties were), Susan was popular on the team, and they tolerated her laziness and dishonesty. It was her eleventh month, and I had come to believe that she would graduate.

Over the next week, I heard the accusations from others on the team, and when a count was taken, several boxes of candy were indeed missing. I called a team meeting and explained what I had heard. I said I thought that I should separate Susan. Several CVs spoke up, and said that was unfair--I hadn't seen Susan take the candy.

I let them decide. Susan could testify, as could her accusers, and the team could vote on her guilt or innocence, and determine her punishment. I would abide by their decision. Susan, as well as the others, agreed this was fair. After a long and painful trial, Susan was found guilty. The team voted, unanimously and in her presence, to separate her.

It was a grim moment, but it was a milestone. We had broken the code of silence. I called it breaking the homeboy barrier--the tendency to protect your buddies, even when they are wrong. In succeeding days, individuals would seek me out and tell me how sick they had become of covering up for Susan's lies and petty thefts. They seemed relieved that she was gone.

Later, Susan telephoned me, and, sobbing hysterically, she begged me to reconsider. "You don't know what it's like, Suzanne," she said. "You're white. You went to Harvard. You can have anything you want." The words were like blows, but I was, as earlier I might not have been, able to sort out my guilt feelings from her guilt. I did not reconsider.

Susan is in college now, studying social work. She sometimes visits the CVC office and we chat amicably. Perhaps it was relief to her, too--finally to be told she could not get over all the time.
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Title Annotation:City Volunteer Corps
Author:Goldsmith, Suzanne
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1988
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