Harvey Jossem, summer 2006, opens his braille dictionary at random. "'Salient!'" he says. It was as if the dictionary — voluminous, supposedly made obsolete by technology — had chosen that word to be discovered that day. To make a point, you know.
Photo by Heidi Walters
The old wall of words
Harvey Jossem was born on April 15, 1930 — he would have turned 78 this Tuesday(15 Apr 08). But Jossem died, of natural causes, on Dec. 28, 2007 leaving behind his tiny, time-frayed little green house on an unnamed dirt street in northeast Eureka, four cats, a handful of friends and caregivers and stacks and stacks of personal effects whose fate Jossem's closest friend, Boyd Hewitt — "Blue" to his friends — must now determine. In fact, Blue has to be in court this month as part of the procedure to appoint him as the official administrator of Jossem's estate.
Truth is, though, Jossem didn't really have much in the way of an estate — and what possessions he left behind might be considered remarkable, if not befuddling. He'd lived in the same little house since the 1960s — he paid $6,000 for it back then, and it's worth about $80,000 now. It's excruciatingly small, and on his modest, fixed income Jossem hardly had money to snazz up the place. He'd been blind since he was 41, he lived alone and decor held no allure for him.
His interests, anyway, seemed to lie more in the realm of the cerebral than the acquisitive. Politics and social justice were central to Jossem's being. His caregivers, once they'd helped him deal with the weekly mail, bills and other tasks, would read local newspapers and national news magazines to him. And all day long he'd listen to National Public Radio — if you called when he was listening to Amy Goodman, well, clearly you didn't know what was important to Harvey Jossem.
Jossem took no guff from people — back when the Journal met him, in August 2006 (see "Island of Harvey," Aug. 10, 2006), he was in a tug-of-war with AT&T, which had rescinded his ability to pay his bill by the automated phone-in system. At long last, he prevailed. Don Bollinger, one of his caregivers and friends, said the first time he met Jossem he brought with him a pair of sunglasses because he'd been told that sometimes blind people feel self-conscious going out in public with their eyes exposed. He asked Jossem if he wanted to wear the glasses.
"And Harvey said, 'That would be pretentious, and there's too much pretension in the world,'" said Bollinger.
But like we said, among Jossem's possessions are some head-scratchers. Take, for instance, the 72-volume Braille dictionary that Jossem rescued one day a few years back from what might have been certain death by recycling. It had been donated to a blind-services organization which didn't want it, because these days one can access information online by using refreshable Braille displays or speech output software.
Each volume of this beast is about half a foot thick and 11-inches square, bound in a blue hardcover and airy-light — in order for the Braille to hold its shape, it has to be printed on thick card stock, and not very many of these pages can go into one volume because their weight would smash down the Braille. The books cannot be stacked atop each other — again, the smashing problem. So, picture 72 volumes each the size of a big-city phonebook that have to stand alone. Bollinger said the volumes became a new wall in Jossem's tiny front room.
But now what will become of Jossem's big wall of words? It's something Blue and his other friends have to figure out. (They've already taken care of the most important stuff: Blue took one of Jossem's cats, and Bollinger took the other three.)
"Nobody's going to be knocking down the doors for it," said Doug Rose, of the Humboldt Council of the Blind, last week. Paper dictionaries are obsolete. "The best thing I can think of is it can go to the recycling center. I think it's past its time. Unless someone overseas wants it."
Maybe the library will want it? Hard to imagine. Maybe, says Bollinger, he'll be able to give it to a friend of his whose child is vision-impaired. "I think it might be quite good for a young person who's learning Braille," he said.
Jossem didn't leave instructions for it. He died, said a caregiver, the day he was to update his will.
— Heidi Walters
[From 10 August 2006 mentioned in the above article.]
The Island of Harvey
A blind citizen-activist tugs at the tangled wires of bureaucracy
story and photo by HEIDI WALTERS
Harvey Jossem and his caregiver, Shaun Case, hauled a small, worn, brown-topped card table out of the dark cave of Jossem's crumbling, green, cramped little house and propped it up in the front yard. Next they brought out some mismatched stools. The early afternoon sun shone on the rooftops of this isolated pocket of rundown houses in northeast Eureka — where Dial-A-Ride often gets lost and is a no-show — and warmed the dirt of the unnamed alley that serves as Jossem's and his neighbors' front-door street. But Jossem's house and yard were enveloped in the shadow of a towering tree, of unremembered heritage, rising from one edge of his property. Jossem planted it in 1961, back when he bought the little house for $6,000 and he could still see. "It was supposed to be a hedge," he said. But it turned into a storybook tree, with several merged graceful trunks soaring into a dark, round canopy. A lilac, perhaps.Photo of Kevin the Cat, Harvey Jossem and two troublesome phones
From the house next door where a music teacher lives, the voice of a man warming up his vocal chords rose and fell through an open window: "oh OH oh OH OH oh OH oh oh." From the house on the other side of Jossem's, three little kids ran into the alley and then back, flying past the fence where their laundry hung, and into the back yard where they keep a goat, giggling and talking in Spanish. A leaf fell from the giant tree into Jossem's hand and he smiled, exclaiming, "Oh, a leaf!"
Left: Kevin the Cat, Harvey Jossem and two troublesome phones.
Case shivered in the cold shade. But not the "100 percent Norwegian" Jossem, sitting there in his tan T-shirt with its Native American peace pipe design. But though he was calm, and smiling, something was putting him on edge: Namely, the telephone company — the now-merged AT&T/SBC behemoth — and its stubborn rule that has stripped Jossem, because of his disability, of the choice to pay his phone bill however he wants to. The hours he's spent trying to get to the bottom of the change in his service has eaten up precious time that might better have been spent, as Case puts it, "reading Washington Spectator." It was time away from Amy Goodman, Science Friday, and the myriad other talk shows and news programs that fill Jossem's days. And that was why he'd invited a reporter over, to sit at the little card table for an afternoon chat that stretched into evening.
The 76-year-old Jossem hasn't always been blind. He was born with glaucoma, but he could see well enough to read and become a news junkie at a young age, to see the Boulder Dam being constructed, to be a bicycle messenger in San Francisco, to climb the oldest oak tree alive (near Chico), to fall in love with Eureka on a trip up here with his brother in 1954 ("It was beautiful; it was exquisite"), to develop a preference for orange cats, to ride a moped — until one day on Myrtle Avenue when a truck hit his moped, his head hit the truck, and his vision declined into darkness over the ensuing six years. By the time he was 41, he was blind.
One thing that didn't change was Jossem's passion for justice, news and politics. That passion developed early: As president at his high school in Berkeley, he changed the rule that had said girls couldn't be president and boys couldn't be secretary. He belonged to the Peace and Freedom Party — "before it was kicked off the ballot," he says — and once tried to run for state assembly on the P&F ticket because no one else would (there was a problem with the paperwork; Jossem almost sued). Now he's in the Green Party. Case accompanied him on the last peace march through town.
"What did they call me?" he said, sitting at the card table, after recounting a Nixon-era tale. "They said I was a 'social co-op anarchist.'" And if anyone tries to tell him he's just a complainer, Jossem will answer: "You've got to fight back a little bit."
But even so, in his isolated neighborhood, in his small house whose back steps need fixing and where his main connection to the world is the radio (his computer blew up awhile back), and in an isolated county — it's like, someone said that day while sitting in his yard, he's "on an island within an island."
So, he's got to shout even louder.
Now the man next door was singing, "Where was I? Where was I?" Sitting at the card table, which by now had been moved into the sunny alley, Jossem asked Case to bring out the old phone the phone company gave him in 1973. Awhile back, when a friend urged him to get a new free phone that the phone company was offering, he got into a battle of wills: The company demanded he send the old phone back first; he balked, said it was silly. He won that one. Case put the old phone on the table, as evidence. "Want me to get the new phone, Harvey?" he asked, then went back inside the house to fetch it. Coming back out, Case set the new phone next to the old phone. More evidence. One of Jossem's four cats — orange-furred Kevin, named after a young friend of Jossem's who died in the 1970s in a wreck on Humboldt Hill — jumped onto the table and flopped next to the phones.
The second go around with the telephone company started "sometime around November or December," Jossem said, when he tried to pay his phone bill the same way he's been paying it for about the past three years. He waited until after 8 p.m. — when the customer service people go home and an automated system takes over — and he speed dialed the number. The automatic recording asked him, as usual, to punch in his phone number. Which he did. But then, instead of going through the paces — speed-dialing his checking account's routing number, punching in the amount he wanted to pay, and the date, and so forth — the recording said, "The office is closed. Please call back."
Jossem called back. And called back. "I thought the office was really closed," he said, laughing. "And this went on for three or four months." Then one day his friend Blue came over and asked Jossem to pay his phone bill for him. Blue doesn't have a checking account, and sometimes he gives Jossem the money he owes and Jossem pays Blue's bill from his checking account. Well, the automated system took Blue's phone number just fine. But, again, not Jossem's — the office "was closed."
"So they've got it rigged so that my phone number doesn't work," Jossem said. Jossem finally called customer service. Four representatives and many weeks later — with Case joining in on the calls — the closest explanation they received was that because Jossem is blind and receives "accessibility services" — free directory assistance, free speed dial — and because he has a free phone from the phone company, he can no longer use the automated system. One rep. had actually figured out the problem and, for one month — June — Jossem was able to pay his phone bill the way he likes to. But in July he was back to having to call in the daytime and talk to a person. It's inconvenient, Jossem says, and requires him to pay his caregiver for the extra time it takes to deal with one more bill, or to pay by check. He could, he supposes, have it automatically withdrawn from his checking account — but that's not a good option because sometimes there isn't enough money in his account on that particular day — living on a $10,500-a-year fixed income, money gets stretched. But his reasons are perhaps irrelevant, because what he's fighting for is his right to pay his bill however he chooses to, just like a sighted person gets to. The rep. named Amy told him, if he insisted on his right to the automated system, he could just send that new free phone right back and give up free speed dial and free 411.
"She was so strong about it — very adamant," said Jossem. "And what I wonder is, how many other people are being affected by this?" A couple of days after that meeting with Jossem, a call to AT&T/SBC's "accessibility services" department yielded pretty much the same answer: People with disabilities can't use the automated system any more. A phone rep, "Eva," said Jossem's account showed "a Code 53."
"It's a block in the system," she said. "Because his account is coded to get 411 for free — and so he gets speed-dialing for free — the computer is blocking him" from using the automated system to pay his bill after hours. Yes, she said, he has to talk to a person — or pay online, or with a check, or have it automatically withdrawn. She said she didn't know why this was so, but surmised that perhaps it's because there are all sorts of people with all sort of disabilities out there — maybe this somehow was protecting them from abuses.
But Jossem isn't the only one complaining about the revoked service. Dan Kysor, governmental affairs director with the California Council for the Blind in West Sacramento, said on Monday that he has been complaining about this very same issue. "I'm blind," he said. "I have two phones: On my work phone, I can use the automated system because I'm not signed up for special services. On my personal phone at home, I receive free directory assistance, and that does not allow me to use the automated system."
Kysor said he had the problem even before the merger. "I have complained," he said. "I really enjoy using the automated system. Now I have to deal with a person." That has meant, at times, being put on hold for 10 minutes or longer waiting for an operator to assist him. With the automated system, it takes about three minutes to pay a phone bill. Some people might say, well, why don't Jossem, Kysor and other people just deal with the change and get over it? "This isn't a question of adapting," Kysor said. It's a matter, he said, of having the same options that sighted people have — especially if they make things easier in a world that's just a little bit more difficult to negotiate when you're blind.
A few days later, on the phone, Jossem emphasized this point: "If there was a sensible reason for it, I'd accept that," he said. "But this is totally nonsense. And I don't think we should have to put up with nonsense."