By Jeeni Criscenzo
Wow! I passed muster with the editors of San Diego Free Press and this marks my inaugural weekly column. I’ve been told I can write about whatever I want, so expect the unexpected, because I like to poke my brain cells into all sorts of ideas and places.
I’ll be alternating between prose and poetry depending on what muse is biting. While my focus will often be on homelessness, I’ll be writing about feminism, equality, gardening, politics and anything else that I think needs to see the light of day.
You might think calling this column “My Niche” is very inappropriate, since you’d be hard pressed to squeeze my varied interests into any kind of niche, unless it was a niche as big as the universe, and that would hardly be a niche at all – that would be a gigantamundo warehouse! But My Niche was the name of the weekly column my mother wrote forty years ago for the Hawthorne Press, the local newspaper for the small New Jersey town where I grew up. I do this to take up the torch she was forced to lay down too soon.
I was already married and living in upstate New York when my Mom started her column. Getting that issue of my hometown newspaper in the mail every week was like getting a letter from home. Except, I barely recognized the instigator who was penning those investigative, liberated and courageous essays under the My Niche header. This lady was stirring up trouble in little ole’ Hawthorne, during a time when nice Catholic mothers of ten children didn’t do things like that!
How could that be the same person I argued with constantly during my teen years? Was it possible the same woman who always lectured me about respecting authority, was defying the system? My mother was a like a human butterfly! She completely metamorphosed after I left home – the minute I turned eighteen. Maybe some of the things I said to her, stuck. Was I that persuasive? Maybe she just had all of this brilliance inside her and it was just coincidence that she didn’t burst out of her chrysalis until I left home. Maybe it was the onset of menopause, or feminism… whatever it was, she sure took off and flew in her forties.
She started investigating the chemical plume that the factory across the street from the town pool and a grammar school would occasionally poof; and the pollution in the brook that ran behind many of the homes in our neighborhood; and shenanigans at the board of education. She ruffled some powerful feathers!
The man who had been mayor since I could remember, who looked just like a cartoon of a mayor, and also happened to be the owner of the chemical plant, finally decided he had enough of this rabble rouser. He threatened to pull the public notices from the newspaper if they didn’t fire Rose Criscenzo! And that was the end of my mother’s column. But not the end of her rabble rousing.
It turned out that the citizens of Hawthorne had a higher opinion of my mom than their mayor and they elected her for the Board of Education. The all-male mucky-mucks who controlled the board thought, since a woman’s place is in the kitchen, that they’d put Mrs. Criscenzo in charge of the cafeteria committee. But she found out there was a buddy system instead of a bidding system for the food contract. As you can guess, thanks to my mom, the kids in Hawthorne schools started getting much healthier lunches and the town saved money too.
There’s no telling what my Mom would have accomplished if she hadn’t been beaten by breast cancer. But now My Niche has been passed to me. I’m lucky not to have to overcome the hurdles of preconceived ideas of a “woman’s place”. Even better, San Diego Free Press doesn’t rely on the money from public notices to stay afloat. So I don’t have to worry about getting fired for pissing off the mayor.
There is another definition for niche besides a specific market segment. It is a place or position suitable or appropriate for a person or thing. An independent, online press certainly feels like an appropriate place for an activist writer like me. I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, was the co-editor of my high school literary magazine, published an historical novel, spent a year on the road blogging, write and perform poetry and just feel good when I’m writing. I hope you’ll be provoked by what you read, enough to post comments and participate in discussions. Let’s see what we can get done with this niche.