one

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.

He had a lavish head of black hair tinged with gray, that warlike sign of battles fought and won, and a sleek body with lots of sharp angles like those female super models.

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

an afternoon 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.

 

 

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 handout for guests, a picture showed children on a field trip with a caption written in a girl’s hand. In the caption, the girl said how much she enjoyed being in Angelo’s class. The girl added the day of the field trip was the best day of her life. She signed, Love, Lilly.

Angelo taught young people in public schools how to be exemplary citizens. 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, flowers in bloom.

 

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

But after two winters on the East Coast, among the worst on record for cold and one blizzard that dumped a colossal amount of snow in a pyrotechnical display of nature’s awesome power, to step off the train in California after a week trip through the most eye popping 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.


Walking on a dark December afternoon on the central artery of the city, the scene of so many vanished lives, the appropriately named Broadway, all the commonplaces, the routines and gadgets that blind us, the images of beheadings, shootings in schools, drone attacks, demonstrations over racially skewed police tactics, James Franco, the machinations of fanatics in Congress, the man with the horrendous hair and gaping mouth who runs the NRA, the bureaucrats monitoring trillions of communications at the National Security Agency, the Clintons, the Bushes, these awful families we have set over us in the place of the King Georges, polite people in downtown San Francisco who stand in teams behind their literature proclaiming that 144,000 chosen people will rule mankind with Jesus, James Franco, the face you can’t escape,

dissolve at once.

Then to come away from Oakland Bibliotecha, one of the last great independent bookstores in the country with the journals of Edmund Wilson from the 1950′s, Captain Cook’s diaries on board the Endeavor in a beautifully illustrated edition, Janet Flanner’s reports from Paris and London before the war, after a book exchange with the canny owner, an American with flowing white hair and formidable gravitas, presence the same as Gandalf in his advanced wizard stage, then to ride past Oakland City Hall, an edifice as imposing as any ancient Roman temple, on a steel bike painted black, a Classic Roadster, past the old Morgan Library, the grove of Redwoods where the crows stand watch, with the rain falling gently, falling here and on the great body of water that leads to the Pacific Ocean, only to cross the border into the last urban frontier in America, West Oakland, with the wind at your back

is bliss.


After she moved to Paris and became a celebrity to the American troops who liberated the village in France where Stein lived with Alice Toklas and a poodle named Basket during the German occupation under the protection of a likely Gestapo agent and clandestine homosexual with connections to the top man in the Vichy government, the odious Marshal Petain, says Janet Malcolm in her report about how two Jewish lesbians with exceptional taste survived the Germans, Two Lives, the intrepid consumer of everything in her path said of her hometown, Oakland, California, There’s no there there.

She meant the place she was familiar with in her youth had vanished.  Her house, the neighboring houses, the markets, were gone.  The signposts that orient us in daily life had become victims of what occurs in every vital urban place, the continuous manipulation of the environment for the benefit of people.

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, not to mention scenes more captivating than any 3-D movie, 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 dogs, creatures that could fit in a large hand bag, entering the building after their morning pee, exploding hair balls with razor sharp teeth, a match for any raccoon or even fox, growling at nothing in particular.

Sometimes, one hears a sawing sound, like someone is cutting down a tree.  The noise goes on 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 excellent taste.  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 man who drives an Escalade, votes Republican, and thinks artists are mostly flakes, and this explains the endless ball throwing, the mysterious sawing noise, the lack of any sound in the middle of the night.

 

 

 

 

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 and feared, the rotten part of the tomato in one of the most prosperous and innovative regions in the world.

Packs of wild dogs and boys with guns ruled the streets.

 

Now it’s mostly safe to walk and be the concerned citizen with the roving eye, taking in a visual feast to satisfy the most experienced flaneur, which is the French word for the person who watches the world with the same intensity it takes to excel at football, on the line of scrimmage, with fire in the belly.

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 nearby.  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 three hundred twenty-five million miles away

hills that burn like burning gold in summer

a cactus fifteen feet high and a century old

the sky so radiant in shades of blue

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 being in an exile of sorts 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 intrusions, 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 an economical 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 this 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 life’s normal challenges moves onto the next target:

someone more vulnerable, someone who hasn’t walked in the crumbling neighborhoods of Havana late at night, or 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 magnificent reading room of the oldest library in the nation, the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island where a ship, the triumphant symbol of the human imagination, floats on a sea of light.

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 with barbed wire, an invention designed to slice veins and mangle flesh, on top.

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.

In the flat area between here and downtown, the residential neighborhoods are wobbling.  Some of the old houses are gutted and abandoned, others well maintained.  Some could be the residence of the Addams Family.  To take it in, it’s not enough to drive through.  You have to be on foot, or on a bike, to see.


At night, one can hear helicopters circling overhead, their propellers chopping through the air, and the wail of sirens. Behind the gates and the locks, the bricks and steel beams of what has become a fortress to keep out men who walk the streets in red socks and sleep wherever they can, the noise barely registers. But out there the drama is real,

sometimes nasty and brutish.

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 at the border, 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.

Janet Flanner emerges as the finest reporter of the world scene, funny and incisive, with a nose for fascinating people being one herself; Captain Cook as a genius, a man who expanded human understanding of the world exponentially, with his self-taught knowledge of mathematics, cartography, navigation, his insistence that his men ingest food that prevented them from suffering the fate, lingering sickness and then death by Vitamin C deficiency, that often decimated naval crews, and kept his men alive, robust, on three voyages that lasted years; and Edmund Wilson, probably the best American mind of the last century, walking about a county fair in upstate New York, looking at owls and thinking about sex.

Walk the streets enough in West Oakland and one can see the dim 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 across the street from the West Oakland Bart station, the usual thing in Guatemala appears:

a security guard

male

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, a guy around 25 with an afro and always steady hand, would never tolerate such nonsense.

Then, the other night, an evening with no moon, a young man, not black white or any stripe other than desperate, steps from behind a tree with his hand reaching in a coat that seems ludicrously overdone, way too large for California in December.

Empty your pockets, he says in a near whisper.

Although it’s a calculated risk, probably not worth the laptop, the watch, the loss of bank and identification cards in the wallet, a piece of plastic that demonstrates to busy court clerks membership in the State Bar of California, his would be victim, a man infinitely harder than these poor boys on the streets, hiding his vulnerability as he nears 53, the loss of physical strength that comes to all men, the ones who are trained experts at maintaining the body and mind into advanced age, former jocks who played among the hogs, the heavy grubbers who manned the offensive and defensive lines, in stadiums at Ivy League colleges, embroiders the truth, tells the assailant he’s assaulting a prosecutor, a local district attorney no less, that if he persists in his lunacy every cop in town will be on him, like stink on shit.

All executed while engaged in the key part of the procedure, backing up, face locked on the assailant, towards the Mandela Parkway, life.

The trick works; he walks away, disappearing into the night.

Fortunately, neither party had a gun.

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.

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, the stimulant humans require to match the powerful emotions that arise from popular religions, the light that overcomes darkness,

knowledge.

Simultaneously, on the only habitable planet we know of, the glaciers are melting, the oceans are turning to acid, and half the world’s species are on track for extinction.

Naturally, many citizens feel powerless in the face of these last developments, the ones occurring now and not in billions of years.

But as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said in his last public remarks before the Massachusetts Historical Society, it shows good taste to hope in the unpredictability of history.

The question arises, what do we mean by this word we cling to in 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.

If one lives long enough, there will be times when one thinks more clearly.  That means in any life fully lived, there will be periods of doubt, episodes of incoherence, and, sometimes, actual despair.  The trick is to remember the good and forget about the rest, to pick one’s self up when one gets kicked in the gut and move on.   

Never surrender and the gaps get filled.