West Oakland

After I moved to West Oakland, a friend died.

Angelo grew up on a farm outside of Stockton, California, a place that reflects the often startling grandeur of this state, its vast spaces rich with the good earth.

His life was beginning to reveal every possibility.

Then, in the middle of the greatest free luxury, a siesta from the normal stresses of life, the time when the best dreams occur, a nap in summer, his heart ceased in its regular motions.

It’s often hard to believe a muscle in the chest is the only thing that keeps who we are, the vast amount of learning we do, all the love and our sorrows too, intact.

When it stops, the final beat among billions, we’re no longer the person everybody knew.

As someone once observed, when a person dies it’s as though a building were abruptly vacated. What remains looks like them, but it’s not them at all.

The body is a husk, the art they hang, when the heart stops.

At Angelo’s farewell in San Francisco, a party organized by his many admirers in a space with ceilings high as an ancient palace, stories were told, the tears fell free.

In the flyer for guests, a picture showed children on a field trip with a hand written note beneath. The girl named Lilly wrote how much she enjoyed being in Angelo’s class. The field trip was the best day of her life she said before she signed, Love, Lilly. 

Angelo taught young people in public schools to make the most of the time we are given.

His voice was smooth like silk and rooted in the world, and when he looked at you with those pretty dark eyes, one saw a happy and unpretentious champion and after that,

a sky so blue.

All weather has it charms mainly because it reminds us we’re alive.

But after two winters on Aquidneck Island, the place by the rushing sea where Bishop Berkeley found refuge, to step off the train in California after a trip through the most ravishing scenery in the world:

mountains that seem to touch the sun

rivers that sparkle with a hard gem like flame

plains so vast they roll on for days

is to become aware of the possibilities

once again.

Given the felonious rents in San Francisco, West Oakland, a five minute train ride through a tube that snakes its way through the bay to the financial center of this region, became the logical place to live.

It turned out everything one needs to know on this island cut off from Oakland by a freeway, not to mention scenes more eye popping than in any movie overwhelmed with special effects, is here.

Upstairs, everything repeats itself. A ball gets thrown out for two dogs. The winning dog brings back the ball and is rewarded with another throw.

One sees these creatures, exploding hair balls that could fit in a large hand bag, entering the building after their morning pee, stretching and exercise, beasts with razor sharp teeth and beady eyes, a match for any raccoon or fox, a wolf maybe, growling at nothing in particular.

Sometimes, one hears a sawing sound, like someone is cutting down a tree.  The noise continues fifteen minutes and stops. Then it begins again.

He is very beautiful and talks like a girl.  He is what you might hope for if you have an eye for the best sort of man. She is the one who must be obeyed.

One gets the feeling these two are artists and not yet a huge success, that they work in an office run by a woman who drives an Escalade, votes Republican and reveres Jeff Koons as the model business person.  This would explain the endless ball throwing, the sawing noise, the quiet between midnight and dawn.

Another she who must be obeyed, the goddess of West Oakland, Miss Trixie, stands guard outside the building:

once a factory making pins

for decades a wreck covered in graffiti

now an illuminated fortress with electronic gates, steel screens, cameras, guards on minimum wage, to keep out those with no chance; men with no shoes who sleep where they can; armies of scavengers who take bottles, cans, bikes, even the stuff bolted down; big kids who rob and kill without remorse because they do what comes natural.

In the aggregate, the festering scab that obscures the still radical message of the American Revolution – that all people are equal regardless of arbitrary characteristics assigned at birth – and gives the worst elements abroad – Putin, the Chinese Politburo, the kooks in the Middle East – powerful ammunition in the war of making a world worth fighting for.

For these unworthy men, the ones who head authoritarian systems that turn out to be attractive for mindless and pacified consumers, billions of podlings well on their way to wrecking the entire planet with their needs and wants, shark fin soup, gold, gas, you name it, are canny enough to know that in this country, the good old USA, last chance for Earth in the mind of Big Daddy Abraham, you can lose your life just like that, just like that, because of the sins of the past and those going on now.

The Titanic rose in July 2014, became a sleek fighter again, when the hipsters, the gays, the rock and rollers, the straights, those with and without children, the Millennials, graduates of Yale and Cal, whatever little boxes people put themselves in to create boundaries between themselves and others; in the end


no gender

people of all creeds and colors

the Americans

hope of the world


Their number, probably the size of a cohort, one of ten units that comprised a Roman legion, 480. Though it could be two cohorts, possibly three.

It’s hard to tell if you’re on the first floor in a building jammed with delightful mostly young people, a man blissfully alone and not, with a view of the parking lot, the hills that glow like burning gold in summer.

The gutsy company that shoveled major dollars into the building to make it the last word in luxury for hard core urban dwellers and expects to recoup its investment in the coming years through steadily rising rents,

will know.

Whatever the number, the only constant, reliable factor in human affairs, change, or gentrificationso called, defined by Urban Dictionary as, When “urban renewal” of lower class neighborhoods with condos attracts yuppie tenants, driving up rents and driving out long time, lower income residents. It often begins with influxes of local artists looking for a cheap place to live, giving the neighborhood a bohemian flair. This hip reputation attracts yuppies who want to live in such an atmosphere, driving out the lower income artists and lower income residents, often ethnic/racial minorities, changing the social character of the neighborhood has begun in earnest.

Actually, the atmosphere is neighborly. The ones who moved in and the ones who have lived here blend, exchange greetings on the street. Just as important, money from elsewhere is flowing into the stores, coffee shops and restaurants. Eventually, the increased cash flow will create further opportunities, new retail and businesses, for people who live in West Oakland to spend what they earn in the neighborhood.

It’s called progress that must be monitored carefully in order to ensure justice for all.

Because developers – even the progressive ones with the best intentions - do come to city council members and say, those affordable housing set asides we promised to the public with great fanfare in this or that plan, we did the math given current conditions, now they can’t be afforded, at least if you want the project to move forward.

That’s when you realize you were naive and these term limits people like so much – especially for president – aren’t so great for all sorts of reasons the average voter distracted by bills, the price of milk and gas, an unfaithful or indifferent spouse, a kid on drugs, the new super duper phone, what James Franco is up to,

never thinks of.

In the area known as the lower bottoms, the warehouses form artificial canyons showcasing the signature graffiti of young men jumped up on testosterone.

Before the 1989 earthquake that caused the collapse and removal of the elevated freeway that ran through the neighborhood, the lower bottoms was largely abandoned.

West Oakland was then one of the most dangerous places in America, a ghetto so called, the place everybody in the Bay Area avoided.

Wild dogs and boys with guns ruled the streets.

In this heavily urbanized parcel of land near the body of water that leads to the Pacific Ocean, an American city undergoing rapid transition, a number of living quarters cobbled together with found materials line the road.

Some of these domestic arrangements are cleverly adapted dumpsters on wheels, and once decorated to suit the occupant’s taste appear reasonably habitable, cheerful even.

Further on, there are tents, no sign of people, and dogs, the urban breed, animals that stare blankly into space and look capable of inflicting serious harm.

Powerful locomotives, their engines running like wild horses, pull freight from a railroad yard. High above on concrete piers that blot out the sun, the endless traffic rushes by.

For better or worse, this is home, the front porch to bear witness to the splendors of the universe: a comet in the shape of a human tooth 325 million miles away; a cactus 15 feet high and a century old; the people so different in their shape, color and appearance turning into other people, the residue of who they once were;

the arc of the seasons wheeling round.

After eight years in places where a man can be left undisturbed to think, one is reminded of an unpleasant fact of life in this neck of the woods.

If you are one of the many who feel the necessity of working for a living, a lot of people with no chance ask for money.

Following months of these shake downs, it’s natural, inhuman, to ignore anyone who begs for what all of us needs to preserve our dignity, the ability to shape the future.

Before long, this approach felt boorish simply because to remain silent in the face of these intrusions compels you to participate in the catastrophes of others.

Consequently, one needs to adopt a coping strategy that’s civilized and say hello to acts that are often highly aggressive, people yelling from across a street, or in your face, smack, for cash.  Offered in a friendly manner, a robust hello acknowledges the humanity of the other person and acts as an unambiguous form of no.

Every time, the person unprepared for the duties of life moves onto the next target: someone more vulnerable, someone who hasn’t walked the streets of Guatemala City in Zone 1 where no police can be found and the wall of sorrow, the place where pictures of kidnapped women fade in the sun, serves as a reminder of how hopeless conditions can become outside the United States.

The Fleet Library of the Rhode Island School of Design

to give one shining example.

At the border of West Oakland, steel giants greet the dawn.

These massive constructions, the product of a business that makes public art for cities, blend with the environment behind the same line of defense one sees everywhere, fences crowned with barbed wire.

According to a man speaking at the excellent show at the Oakland Art Museum on the schools of California art from Diego Rivera to today, the graffiti art form is almost entirely driven by young males, and is meant to mock corporate advertising.

Whatever the motives behind all this creation, the murals spun out by these impresarios of spray paint do wonders to soften ugly asphalt.

The black robed nobility of birds, crows, live here in great numbers.  Their guards stand watch in the tops of the tallest trees, the Redwoods, at the Oakland border, the Mandela Parkway.

If you listen intently, block all distractions, focus, you can hear their thoughts, which tend to reflect human concerns, on the wind.

Not since Miami have there been such cloud formations.

So tremendous they crowd out the land and everything on it, setting aside the steel giants, the gracious hills surrounding the city,

the grove of Redwoods that found themselves abruptly liberated from an ugly raised freeway, a construction that for years tore the guts from the neighborhood and rendered it a wasteland, when the earth shook,

the people.

Walk the streets enough in West Oakland and one can see the outline of the American future.

In the industrial section where the worst illegal dumping occurs, businesses of every variety are operating: construction companies, an electric cable company, a cigar company, a yard furiously turning out cement, a factory building monumental public art, recycling centers of all kinds, a high tech lab of some sort behind impressive green glass, a neon light shop, a shipping supply company, a cannabis dispensary giving jobs to young people, a dog day care center, studios making things, useful and beautiful goods that would look odd in the mass production lanes of IKEA, the Brown Sugar Kitchen, recently celebrated in the New York Review of Books as a symbol of what’s working in this city, the Man Cave, selling essential items for manly men wholesale and directly to the public from a beautifully restored warehouse, a non-profit food cooperative, to start.

In the 99 cent store, the usual thing in Guatemala appears:

a security guard


in his twenties

looking bored

with a gun.

The only thought that arises is no good can come of this, that if he actually felt compelled to use this fearsome weapon in a real life situation, with people screaming and what not, the bullets would end up through the detergent, in the eye of an old lady, in your back, while the bad guys get away and the security man is dead, splat, on the floor, with his smoking, exhausted pea shooter by his side.

Meanwhile, a few steps away at the Mandela Foods Cooperative, a store that sells raw goat milk in old fashioned glass bottles, the best bread, butter from France, dates, organic peanut butter, the freshest produce, fish that glistens like diamonds, James, the boss wouldn’t tolerate anything so oppressive, dangerous, in a store that could barely make payroll several years after it opened, but which is now successful.

The closest store to the fortress, Sav-Right Liquors, is customized to farm the poor, magnify their problems.

In this paradise of convenience, chips in 20 flavors, milk priced a dollar above its value, losing lottery tickets, Ben & Jerry’s, cheap vodka, flow in abundance.

The establishment is owned by a man from India, a figure in his 80′s who is serene in the midst of bedlam.

His younger brethren, hard working young men, Americans, man the registers and direct with the touch of an experienced diplomat the men with glazed eyes who stumble in and demand to know the whereabouts of trail mix.

In the future, hopefully, these stores and churches that pepper the neighborhood will be replaced by businesses that offer healthier products than pop tarts and Jesus as the answer to every problem; vegetables grown on the premises in vertical racks, on the roof, the sidewalk.

All the things that sustain a composed soul.

West Oakland is a diverse community of about 25,000 residents with a rich history and tremendous potential for economic and neighborhood revitalization. Despite a deep-seated commitment to improve the quality of life for themselves and their neighbors, community members still suffer from some of the highest rates of unemployment, poverty, and diet related disease in the County.  

Mandela Foods Cooperative website.

These hometown fire and police departments, which consume nearly all the general fund spending of communities; obsolete as those phones we used to get to football practice in high school, to the beach, some party, with the duplication in every city and town of the highest paid jobs at the top; confusion over who responds to what at ancient borders; each place with its own little army, public safety unions, guarding the money pot.

And these local city councils, the mayor of Ferguson, part timers mostly, people who often grow up with the cops and firefighters and take their money to win elections; not the right parties to deal with the demands of public safety unions, enough armor, the leftovers from the homeland security rave, to stop the German Wehrmacht in World War 2; compensation packages and pensions taxpayers can afford at the expense of everything else, and which drain the life from struggling American cities, from Bridgeport to Fresno, leaving islands of poverty and dysfunction ringed by vast suburbs, the place you speed by on a freeway with the windows up and doors locked, the place too that makes the police that work there despise humanity.

Better to create large public safety regions.

Perhaps ten in the U.S. like the Environmental Protection Agency administers its programs and funds.

The savings would be immense; free countless dollars; provide seed money to chart a course in the direction to where it’s at in the future, cities, for affordable housing set asides, funding for kids in juvenile hall who get cycled through the system and end in jail, improvements in West Oakland, a fund to combat illegal dumping in more creative ways, the creation of community gardens, the clean up of polluted lots, abandoned parking lots, the diversion of highways, these placeless rivers of asphalt that split neighborhoods apart, out of the urban core, the reduction in the size of roads more generally, more trees and more money for their maintenance, a fund for rain barrels, the installation of rain gardens, more sophisticated systems for storm water management, added bike lanes, more roads – the largest and most important public spaces – converted entirely to pedestrian use, the technology to remove food from landfills, the creation of an economic model where every product is designed to be reused, recycled, the end of waste; the wreckage from all the sloppy thinking of the past tossed in the dumpster.

Also helpful to impose procedures, standards of conduct, regarding the use of force that avoid the human stain; racial prejudice; treating people differently based on perceptions of whether they have money,

or not.

In Northern California, the traffic is typical of any metropolitan region of the United States.

From Sacramento to San Jose and on all roads leading to San Francisco, pieces of machinery that on a monthly basis drain the wallets of most people, cars, back up miles each morning, every night, on the weekends, randomly, at any hour.

It can take 3 hours to travel 27 miles on public works notable only for their crushing banality, their supersize quality, the oppressive feeling of spiritual desolation that hovers above sun struck dashboards,

like an oil slick upon the sea.

But in West Oakland, one can avoid a situation that contains plausible distant echoes of the collapse of everything important; helicopters reporting on traffic flows, the squeaking mechanical parts as vehicles inch to the toll plaza, the sound of engines spewing carbon, 

the way people look as Jose Saramago thought they did, unnatural, queer, out of their element, trapped, in cars; get everywhere, courthouses, markets, theaters, cinemas, markets, the apartments of friends, through a public transportation system that’s the finest in the world.

To move among citizens and foreign travelers in awe of the country, on foot or with a bike, is, once you’ve had enough of this modern form of mass hypnosis, the logical outcome of a project begun in Eisenhower’s final phase, insanity, a way of life future Americans will dismiss as primitive,

an incomparable luxury.

One that keeps a man optimistic, strong in mind and body, Pat Lyonish,

to the end.    

A touring bus from the 1980′s with Gold Country emblazoned across the front, battered and sagging on its rear axles, a decaying whale on wheels that moves a block every so often, is a fixture in the neighborhood.

A man who appears the digital image of Jesus and a little dog live on the bus, which is crammed with so much stuff it’s impossible to see inside.

The man is harmless, skittish; the approach of a live human being sends him into a panic, but it’s nice to confirm his dog is well cared for, as he has not been.

In every other community in the Bay Area, residents would speak angrily into the phone to the mayor’s office, demand the bus be impounded, the police summoned, action taken,

now, right away, immediately,

can you believe it?

Only in West Oakland, or Detroit, the most free wheeling urban frontiers in America, would this man be permitted to live this lifestyle.

At least for now.

Angelo died too soon, painlessly, swiftly, his faculties at their zenith. His friends who remain see with sometimes averted eyes what we’re facing – expensive treatments that prolong the agony of individuals beyond necessity, facilities that are thinly disguised warehouses for the aged, an ethical atmosphere that treats aging as a medical problem and not one of basic human rights.

The wise prepare an exit strategy in advance, a method to avoid the nonsense, the transformation from robust citizen into mushy victim at the mercy of the medical establishment, overmedicated and confused, a colossus, not entirely benevolent, run by overpaid administrators

if it comes to that.

But for now

each morning as the sun arises and as each day is spent

Never Surrender

and the gaps get filled.

According to a theory arrived at by the science mavens at Princeton, the universe we inhabit, though immense, may be a pocket universe lodged in a much larger universe where the laws of physics do not apply.

Meanwhile, our universe is expanding at the margins so rapidly, an explosion could occur such that all matter will be instantly incinerated; the reverse big bang; a mass contraction and return to the void; creation extinguished in the blink of an eye.

Bada bing as Tony Soprano would say in this universe, which includes the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, a place thick with angels of indeterminate sex.


So much mystery added to all that is known provides the necessary high to eclipse the powerful emotions that arise from traditional methods of organizing experience, the Our Father, an aged dictatorial white man in Prada slippers, the light that overcomes darkness,


and hope in the unpredictability of history,

the future, as Arthur Schlesinger commented in his last public remarks to the Massachusetts Historical Society.

From these spinning thoughts, the question arises: what do we mean by this word we cling to in these anxious times, the new age of barbarism, anti-government sentiment and environmental peril, the word being civilization.

Without a doubt, we mean the simple things: police that come when called, judges that are diligent and sometimes courageous, an environment protected from the excesses of our collective laziness, state of the art infrastructure, libraries as the repository for diverse and controversial opinions, great parks, an inspired public education free to all, architecture that reminds us of the mastery people are capable of achieving in placing others in harmony with the environment in which they perform their lives.

Above all, we mean ideas about being human and fulfilled, happy and at home in the world, continue to evolve.