Neil Herring, alto saxophone
“a chance to live my politics”
I was born in 1939 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My father was an immigrant from a shtetl in Lithuania called Ponadel. My mother was first generation. Her people were from Ponadel too. My father came as a teenager and eventually he brought his mother and all of his siblings over. Their native language was Yiddish. Two of my cousins on his side were natives too. Both parents’ families settled in Worcester. I never lived there. My mother and father moved to Brookline, a suburb of Boston.
My father had a fourth grade education but by the time he settled in America he was fluent in about five languages. First he sold woolens in Boston and then he was what they called a contract manufacturer of boy’s clothing. He didn’t have his own factory but he would have garments made at factories that had down time.
I got more of a Jewish education than most of my peers. My father was conservative and my mother was reform. I finished the local Hebrew school and went on for two years at the Hebrew Teachers College in Brookline. There was a high school section and the language of instruction was Hebrew. I was fluent in Hebrew by the time I was fifteen.
On the other hand, by the time I was Bar Mitvah’d I was a confirmed atheist. I read Bertrand Russell and that’s what convinced me that religion made no sense at all. My father made a deal with me; he said, “You have gone to Hebrew school longer than any of your friends so I’ll be very happy if you go to Hebrew high school but as far as I’m concerned whenever you want to quit, you can quit. You won’t hear a peep out of me.” He kept his word about that. I decided to keep going to the high school because I was so interested in Hebrew as a language and in the literature. It was a really different experience of Hebrew than reading prayers in the synagogue.
If you don’t speak a language, it slips away every day but If I go to an Israeli film, I still get about twenty-five percent. I think I was an unusual American kid because I studied Latin and then French in high school. I became close friends with an exchange student from Paris. So I was also fluent in French by the time I was fifteen, a trilingual American. (Nobody, by the way, studied Spanish in Boston.) And then later, I lived in Japan for a year. I could carry on a simple conversation in Japanese.
I played music in high school—sax and clarinet. I had my own little dance band. We played weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. I had studied violin first and then piano. When I started on clarinet I liked it more than the other two so I took clarinet lessons and eventually decided to pick up the saxophone. There was this terrific piano player who I’m still in touch with. He’s a professor of music at Cornell. We had a bass player who was younger than us. And we played gigs. We had a fake book with every song that anyone could ask for. When I went to college–it wasn’t a conscious thought; in fact, I think I took my clarinet—but I never played again until just before I retired.
My father wanted me to go into his business. I told him for years that I was not going to be interested in that. So I headed for college.
I hated Yale undergraduate because it was two-thirds preppie. Very few high school kids like me. I was an alien. I had started reading the existentialists when I was still a kid. Some of them were communists so I read Marx and Engels and American Marxists and intellectually I was a pretty convinced Marxist by the time I went to college.
I spent seven years at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, four years undergraduate and three years at law school. In ’61, I married a townie. I was 22. Her father owned a drug store.
Law school was very different. There were small classes and mostly progressive students and I was able to learn labor law and constitutional law. I became a labor lawyer. For me that meant being on the side of working people, not on the side of the bosses.
I went into the army for two years as an officer during the Vietnam War but I never left Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. I had always wanted to live in the San Francisco Bay Area so I tried to get a job there after leaving the army but I couldn’t get a government job in that city. The head of the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office there said, “Well, I can’t give you a job here but there’s a new regional office opening in Los Angeles.” So I decided, “Well okay, I’ll get a solid job there and after a little while I’ll be ready to move to San Francisco.” I stayed in LA for fifteen years.
I worked for the National Labor Relations Board for about two years. It was good to learn the ropes of labor/management relations and to get to know the specialists, the practitioners in LA and to get some trial experience but I had no intention of remaining in government employment. I went with a law firm and stayed for five years. They were the “red” law firm in town. I left them with one other fellow and we formed a partnership, the two of us. My main client, the ILWU (editor: International Longshoreman Workers Union), was kicked out of the CIO for being communist led in 1948. They would organize anyone; they didn’t have to be connected with maritime trades. They organized US Borax that mined borax in the middle of the Mojave Dessert. That local was my main client for 40 plus years. US Borax sponsored “Death Valley Days”. (editor: One of the longest running radio and television Western series. Ronald Reagan famously hosted it in 1964-1966 just before running for and winning Governor of California.) They had a Reagan mentality too.
I also represented individual rank and file workers including union members who wanted to clean up their corrupt local unions. I was probably the only union lawyer in LA who was willing to sue crooked unions.
The unions I represented, you never wanted to mess with them. They could close down the Port of Los Angeles. I mostly enjoyed it. It was definitely a chance to live my politics which had been radical since I was sixteen years old, but after a while, especially when Reagan was coming to power, I enjoyed it less and less. I was a litigator. I was a trial lawyer. When you’ve tried cases for twenty-five years, you’ve seen every scummy trick defense lawyers can pull on you. It’s not funny any more.
I was with my first wife about 15 years, ten of them married. We had three children. The oldest is 58, then 57 and almost 52. The two oldest are daughters, the youngest is a son. In the late ‘60s the feminist movement got stronger and some of us who had children wanted to raise our children as anti-racist and feminist, so we put together an urban collective in the west side of LA called May Day. We’ll have the 50th anniversary of its founding this September. The kids all think of themselves as quasi-siblings because May Day lasted seven years. When we started there were 13 children and 12 adults. Nine of the 13 kids were in diapers. We had a major diaper-washing scene every day.
My then wife had feminist friends with kids. We were looking for at least two or three other couples who had the money to buy an apartment complex and the politics to live collectively, to make decisions by consensus and raise our children to be avid feminists and anti-racists. We thought living together was the only way that the women in the couples could really pursue their own vocations. Each of us would do child care and cook one day a week and by rotating those chores the kids would have male and female role models. It was an attempt to put into practice left wing feminist child raising. We found two other couples with the money. One of them were small-“c” communists like us and the other couple were progressive, and then we had enough capital to buy the place, an 8-unit apartment complex. We all paid rent based on an elaborate formula that included how many kids each family had and what their income resources were.
My two oldest kids, who were 7 and 5, had been raised in a nuclear family. They were the oldest kids to join this collective. It was a big adjustment for them. For the others, like my one year old, it was like having ten siblings the same age. I think it was hard for my kids because I divorced a year after being there. At least half of the couples divorced. Once the women could have their own vocational lives, they could look at their husbands and say, “Okay, I don’t need him for money anymore. Do I really want to be with him?” And half of them answered in the negative. At the same time the kids had a lot of quasi-parents they could lean on. My ex-wife stayed at May Day for about a year but she was kind of abrasive and the collective decided she had to go rather than me. But she moved nearby and my kids went back and forth. I was a more-than-50-percent parent with my three kids.
The collective lasted seven years. There was a gradual dissolution. There was no enmity. One couple left because they wanted to go to an area with better schools. Another couple decided to have a nuclear family home. There came a point where there weren’t enough people committed to the ideal to keep it going so we made a consensus decision to disband it in 1977. When we liquidated there was a formula for those who had paid rent but had not put up capital to buy the complex. They had helped to accumulate equity in the building so they shared in the benefit of the sale.
Dena and I had gotten together in ‘74. So after the collective broke up we lived in a middle class single family house for three years but the longer I lived in LA the worse it had gotten. First of all, I had decided to quit law by 1980. I was sick of it. As the country turned right, there was no point in trying to get labor law justice out of the system so I decided to give up practicing law and didn’t pick it up again until ‘88. I retrained as an ESL teacher.
Dena, who had moved to LA at age 12, said, “I’m leaving LA in 1980 and if you want to come with me that would be really great but if you don’t want to come with me, I’m leaving LA in 1980.” She had grown up in a little town on Lake Erie, a suburb of Erie, Pennsylvania. There was a GE plant there and her father was a United Electrical Workers organizer. Her family got red baited out of Erie and they moved to Los Angeles. Because of McCarthyism he could never get a job there. He never worked again. Her mother did get work as a legal secretary in LA.
We started making weekend trips and looked all over the Bay Area. Even though our house in LA had doubled in value in three years it wasn’t enough to buy a home in the Bay Area. Dena had a brother in Marin County who told us, “For the amount of money you have, you’re going have to go to Sonoma or Napa County.” We eventually narrowed it down to Sebastopol.
By that time my daughters had pretty much been living by themselves. The older one was in college. The younger daughter was sharing an apartment with her sister. I’m not sure it was a good idea but they were living by themselves. And my son, then 12, had to decide for the first time in his life which of his two parents he would go live with because I was going to be 400 miles away LA. He decided to come up here and live with Dena and me. That was a huge shift in his life because he went from a progressive living collective with lots of quasi-siblings, and then multi-ethnic schools to a nearly all-white school and community. It was a tough transition for him.
And I think it was hard for Dena to step-parent him and hard for him getting used to having a step-parent. So he lived here between age 12 and 16. Then he went to live with his mom for a while. And then he went to live in Europe for a year.
Jeffrey’s been living the life I dreamed. Because he is able to make a living anywhere, he has now lived all over the world. He has a business online. First he was providing costumed entertainers at kids’ parties, like birthday parties. But he realized that he could make more just renting out the costumes. He didn’t have to train entertainers. You wouldn’t believe what people are willing to pay to entertain their two and three year old kids. And he makes a living whether he’s in Thailand or in India or Africa. Right now he’s in Accra, Ghana. He’s lived abroad now going on six years. I saw him once about a year and a half ago.
I often Skype with my younger daughter who now lives in Lisbon, and we have long wonderful conversations. She also has a 21st century job; she’s an online counselor. She calls it life coaching. No credential but she gets people to pay her sizeable amounts of money to counsel them on sex, love, and intimacy.
The older daughter is the most conventional of my children. She’s the only one who got a college degree. On the eve of her 15th birthday she had run away from home and stayed away for a whole year, joined a traveling circus in the rural South. For a short while she was a professional dancer. Then she trained as a paralegal and she’s worked for a Century City law firm for twenty something years. I said, “I’ll give you the money to go to law school. You can make five times the money for what you’re doing.” But she didn’t want to go to law school.
From ’80 to ’86 I was an ESL teacher at the Santa Rosa Junior College. Then Dena and I decided to go live in another country for a year. We chose Japan. She had no teaching experience but I had a very good resume so our strategy was to get her a job first and that worked. We had a variety of jobs teaching English in ’87 and ‘88. We traveled all over Japan and worked a little less in the summer so we could go to Southeast Asia and China. At that time you really couldn’t travel in China without booking some kind of guide. I couldn’t read Chinese. There was very little English signage. It was a real different experience than being in Japan where we spoke the language and knew our way around. In China we knew nothing.
A very important part of my life was in 1982 when I joined M.E.N.. (editor: Men Evolving Non-violently) I was co-facilitating long term peer counseling groups there and wrote all the manuals on how to do group therapy. I was there twenty-seven years.
Starting before I retired, I have increasingly done volunteer work. M.E.N. was the main thing but I was also a volunteer for Food for Thought in Forestville (editor: “providing healthy food & love to people living with HIV and other serious illnesses”). I was there for six or seven years. Dena was on the board of directors. After I left M.E.N. I got into senior peer counseling, mostly one on one. About half of them are self-referred and the other half come from agencies. I do typically twelve weeks, one session a week, usually in the senior’s house though Covid19 has presented problems.
The senior counseling is totally different. In M.E.N. we were trying to change men’s attitudes and behavior. In counseling seniors you’re really not trying to change anything. You just try to listen and help them cope with the problems of being old. The agency, West County Community Services, is wonderfully led, brilliant female leadership. Their big mantra is the difference between being and doing. It’s an independent non-profit but it’s County funded. The County gets a huge bargain. For two staff—a director and an assistant director—they get thirty-five volunteers who don’t get paid and we see hundreds of people that the county might otherwise be providing counseling for.
The biggest disappointment of my life is not having grandchildren because I really dig kids. My daughters never wanted to have children and my son, I think it’s too late–though he’s got a girlfriend in her late 20s. About five or more years ago I was thinking, “If I’m not going to have grandchildren, what can I do to have children in my life?” I started volunteering in kindergarten. So I’ve been doing that once a week until Covid-19. My grandparent friends are all having a really rough time because they can’t go see their grandchildren.
We’ve been in this house forty years. It will all end in ten days. (editor: Neil was in the process of packing to move.) This is a two story house. My office and music studio is upstairs. It’s an acre and a third, a lot of land to take care of, so we decided that we wanted to drive less and walk and ride bicycles.
Music is my first endeavor now. From 17 to 62 I never played but once I was nearing retirement I decided that music would be a good thing to get back into. So I practiced on my own for about a year and thought, “Okay, I’m serious enough about this to take lessons.” I studied with Roy Zajac (editor: principal clarinet for the Santa Rosa Symphony.) for about ten years. We became close personal friends. He’s a great guy. And somewhere along the line—although Roy hates the instrument—I decided to go back to playing saxophone. Not long before I joined New Horizons I got myself a beat up alto. I had played tenor in high school. I had taken some lessons from a dud of a teacher in high school but basically I knew how to play the saxophone, which I think is an easier instrument.
I’ve been a sub in a clarinet quartet. We’ve been playing together ten feet apart. (editor: This was during the shelter-in-place because of the pandemic.)
I have a woodwind quintet that keeps setting–then cancelling–a date for practice: bassoon, French horn, oboe, flute and clarinet. (Since the 19th century a huge amount of woodwind quintet music has been composed.) It was going fine before the virus.
I miss playing music with other, larger ensembles.