Postcard from the End of America: Oakland

Other people’s lives come fluttering to us in the tiniest fragments, and these we gather, when we bother to, into an incoherent jumble of impressions we pass off as knowledge. Further, our ears, eyes and mind are all seriously defective and worn-down, making intelligence a dodgy proposition, at best. Our memory also crashes daily, if not secondly, our verbal skills poor, and when we examine ourselves, there are the added distortions of endless exculpation and vainglory. In short, no one knows ish about ish, though some ish does get much closer to the real ish. One thing for sure, amigo, if you ain’t aiming for ish, you ain’t gonna get ish.

From behind my cranium, a reflective voice, “As you get older, more things happen, you know what I mean, and it’s not much fun either.” The speaker is a middle-aged white male, talking to another suspect of a similar description. They have both committed a list of crimes, small, large and unspeakable, too long and various to summarize here, or anywhere. Eager to please, speaker has a sweet tendency to laugh uproariously at the slightest joke or witticism hacked up from any vocal cord, no matter how stupidly inspired or ineptly delivered. Speaker is traveling from Denver to Elko, Nevada.

Four feet behind my brain stem, another voice, on another bus, “Dude, I lost my virginity in a sedan, and it was like the most gnarly experience ever. I don’t know how people have sex in a car. Dude, you might as well get out and lay on the ground. I’d rather have sex on fuckin’ mud!” Speaker is a young white male chatting up a young black female. It is unclear why he keeps addressing her as “dude.”

Now, permit me to hand you a chunkier fragment of life. We have just passed Winter Park, Colorado, and sitting next to us is a white male in his late 30s. From Denver to Salt Lake City, he will not buy food or drink at any rest stop, but only smoke. If you look down, you will see a loaf of Bimbo in his duffel bag. White bread is all he has chewed on since Tulsa, and will eat until Boise, where he has a sister. Siblings will then drive to Vegas, where they can blow at least part of the sister’s $4,000 tax return, “We won’t gamble much, maybe just $30 or $40 at a time.” Fun over, they’ll head to Bakersfield, CA, to see relatives. He will be away from home three weeks. Now, any man who can be gone that long is likely unemployed, and broke too, obviously, unless he is a rabid fan of Bimbo, for whom nothing but Bimbo will do.

Now, excuse me for a sec, for I must reach inside my shirt and pants to scratch myself. When you sit on a bus for too long, whatever skin issues you have simply blossom! Tissues flake, scale, crack and even ooze something like Hawaiian Punch gone bad. Thus gross and itchy, I decided to get radical back in Kansas City, and, no, I didn’t bomb its Federal Reserve Building. My solution was strictly personal, discreet, though en plein air. It had been snowing hard for hours, and the streets were mostly deserted. Having not washed in days, I decided to leave the bus station, filled as it was with blizzard and economic refugees, to crouch down by the side of a nearby building, take my pants off and rub snow on my inguinal regions. That’s a fancy phrase to indicate my second, more candid head and adjacent backdoor, the one leading to the lugubrious dumpster. I froze my nuts off, but felt super clean afterwards, cleaner than I had ever been, in fact, on this phantasmagoric earth.

Constantly exposed, thus deprived of privacy, for just a few days, I was already getting weird, so it’s hardly surprising that many who have to be outside all the time are borderline mad, if not ravingly so. Denied the silence and space to reflect, they often argue with themselves out loud, as if to shut up and shut out the unceasing white noise. In Oakland, I saw a young woman, draped with a thin comforter, who’d crouch down often to pick something from the ground. At first I thought she was scavenging cigarette butts, then I realized she was picking up anything that wasn’t stuck to the sidewalk, a tiny scrap of paper, a dry leaf, a match stump, a candy wrapper… Not content to pick up the pieces, she’d kneel down on the concrete to arrange them, to give them order and meaning.

Grinning goofily, she danced jerkily for half a minute. She had on a hooded, plaid jacket, black pants, blue sneakers and a dangling, plastic earring. Her hair was sheared short. For nearly an hour, she loitered in front of an all-night convenience store, the one with Marilyn Monroe and the King of Pop on its walls, and Obama and lottery ads in its window. The proprietors, an Indian couple, had to keep their eyes out for shoplifters and those sneaking coffee refills. Thinking a passerby had addressed her, she answered him, but the dude coldly replied, “I wasn’t talking to you.” A man tossed a still longish butt on the ground, so I pointed it out to our dancing scrounger. She snatched it. Wanting to find out what’s up, I decided to buy two tall boys of Tecate from a store half a mile away. None was closer. “Sweet,” she said when I finally handed her a beer. We were sitting in a bus shelter. It was chilly enough that night.

“What’s your name?”
Jillian,” she grinned. “Jill.”
“How old are you?”
“You don’t look twenty-seven. You look maybe twenty-two, twenty-three.”
“I’m twenty-seven.”
“How long have you been on the streets?”
“Two and a half months.”
“You should go home. Oakland’s fucked up. Where are you from?”
“Where in Oregon? What town?”
“It’s near Canada.”
“Canada?!” I laughed. “Canada is not next to Oregon. Where are you really from?”
“Here and there. I’ve lived in Riverside.”
“Riverside is not in Oregon. Where’s your mom?”
“I talk to my mom everyday.”
“Oh yeah? How do you talk to her, with a phone card?”
“I talk to her in my head.”

A man in his 40’s came by and offered Jill cigarettes for what remained of her beer, less than half a can. Without hesitation, she gave it up for two cigs. He swigged, then shared that he was getting off the streets the very next night, having found a single occupancy room in San Francisco for $135 a week.

Jill’s face may be in post offices across the country, as MISSING, or probably not. Maybe no one’s missing her. Up in Berkeley, there are hundreds of young people living on the streets, but those tend to band together, or at least pair up. This one was alone. I bought Jill a warm coffee from the lousy store, and she gave me a green pill. She popped three, so I ate mine, for it is impolite to refuse anything that someone else deems appropriate for her own mouth and body, be it possum, field rat or whatever American youths feel they must ingest to endure an absurd present and rudderless future, as wrecked by their elders.

Of course, that was stupid, for I don’t even do drugs, and am adverse to all pills, even the common aspirin. In fact, I dread, fear and deeply, deeply despise all chemicals, chemistry and even chemists, and never pass one without giving him the meanest look. My potassium, sodium, chloride and phosphorous-laden blood rapidly boils at the sight of any periodic table. If I see a pharmacy, I cross the street. (Are you happy now, Mrs. Reagan, or should I say, Are you, by chance, high on your pills, ma’am?) Yes, sometimes you must say no, but all it all, you should say yes to just about everything that’s offered without malice or commerce in mind. Great travel writer Paul Theroux doesn’t eat meat, and V.S. Naipaul doesn’t drink alcohol, so they are missing out on a very important bonding ritual with their subjects, I think. If you come to my resplendent mud hut, you better swallow what I slop in front of you.

When Jill started to walk north, away from relatively safer downtown, I shouted after her, “You should stay at the square,” meaning Frank Ogawa Plaza, where the Occupy encampment was, by the way, “You shouldn’t walk that way.” But she kept going and going, while picking up pieces of nothing along the way.

What is madness, anyway? I mean, who isn’t insane in various ways, none all too subtle, for there is no person who isn’t farcically deluded and mad, none except me, of course, though I’m foggily aware of Ben Franklin’s foggy observation, “Each mofo walks around in a fog, but since the air seems clear around each, he doesn’t know he’s in a fog.” Who’s to argue with Philly’s greatest MC ever? Of course, Ben’s right. We’re all fogged up, and being exposed to the elements day and night, and in constant danger of being robbed, raped or killed, won’t likely clear up anyone’s head. Near Oakland’s Lake Merrit, I saw a man trying to cross the street in a wheelchair, so I gave him a push.

“Where are you going?”
“That bus stop right there.”
“OK, I’ll push you. It’s a lot easier for me.”
“You got that right.”

Jeff was his name, and he had lost his right foot in a motorcycle accident. In Daly City, I’d see a bumper sticker, “OUR NATIONAL HEALTH PLAN. DON’T GET SICK!” And don’t get amputated or brain-damaged either, not even for Uncle Sam, for you may end up on your local sidewalk after leaving your mind, limbs or mama maker in Iraq. The parade’s over, if there was one. In Richmond, I’d run into a poster, “I left the nightmare of war only to find myself in a [sic] another. Are you a homeless veteran?”

“Hey, man, you want a beer? I’ll cross the street to get us some.”
“No, that’s all right, I already have beer, and you can have one too if you like. It’s in my bag.”
“No, man, I’m not going to take your beer.”

Though not a veteran of the explosive streets of Baghdad, but merely the shaded and elegant promenades of picturesque Oakland, as stewarded by the just, wise, measured and upright Jean Quan, Jeff had clearly gone mad, for he slurred, “I have two houses, man, and you can stay in one if you like. It’s a little small but it’s nice. We’ll take the bus there. It’s only ten minutes away.”

“If you own two houses, what are you doing on the streets?”
“No, man, I’m not on the streets. I’m not. Do you want a beer? I have beer.”

It was awfully cold that evening, and Jeff was shivering as he spoke. A bus came, but Jeff made no effort to get on. I’m not sure he would be allowed to board it, in any case, not that he had anywhere to go, really. Though he didn’t look terribly dirty, Jeff did reek of days-old sweat and urine. He smelled homeless. Another bus came, then another, but Jeff would stay outside all night, as he had so many nights.

I went back to the same area on other days, but never saw Jeff again. I did encounter “the guided one,” however, a man in his 60’s with stringy, salt and pepper whisker, and a cap over his hoodie. Mahdi’s belongings were stacked on two shopping carts and a most unusual, highly modified bicycle, and they weren’t together but in three spots, over some distance. I’d think that if you didn’t have a door and lock, you’d want to keep all your stuffs within immediate reach, to prevent them from walking away, but clearly Mahdi was willing to sacrifice this security to stake out a vaster territory. In his own way, he was practicing imperial overreach.

Of course, Mahdi’s no emperor of anything, not even of ice cream. He has lost all but a few scraps, with even his ideas stolen from him, “I see these houses all over Oakland painted in the color scheme I came up with years ago. People are making lots of money from these fancy houses, but they’re using my color scheme, and I’m not getting a penny from it.”

“What color scheme are you talking about?”

“It’s purple, green and brown. You see it everywhere, but, you know, sometimes they change it slightly. I came up with this color scheme years ago, decades ago! It has spiritual significance, for it brings harmony to all those who dwell within. You will feel calmer, you hear me, just by looking at it. Remember: Purple, green and brown. I call it my Intergalactical Cosmic Color Scheme.”

If Mahdi had three drummers behind him, you might mistook him for Sun Ra. OK, I’m sorry, Mr. Ra, for you are the man! And a Philly badass, no less, just like B Franklin!

Not content to steal Mahdi’s color scheme, the ungrateful world will soon snatch from him an even greater invention, Mahdi’s magnificent sleeping bicycle. Attached to the frame is a cubicle, made of cardboard and milk crates, where you can actually lie down. You can’t pedal while reclining, however, but then an RV owner can’t sleep and drive either. In any case, Mahdi’s invention is surely the RV of the future. After Social Security is finally wiped out, a retiring worker can be sent off with one of these tiny apartments on wheels, and when he dies, it will also serve, conveniently and economically, as his coffin. Seeing Mahdi’s ingenious bike, smartasses had dubbed it all sorts of insulting names, “One guy called it the ghetto train, but this isn’t a train, and it’s not ghetto. Once they’ve stolen my idea, they’ll mass produce my bike and make lots of money. You will see it all over Oakland, and all over America.”

You won’t see any bizarre homeless contraption in Jack London Square, however, for it is spic and span and dominated by upscale restaurants. Should London’s ghost amble from his Klondike Gold Rush cabin, now preserved on the square, this friend of the downtrodden would be aghast to be surrounded on all sides by bankers, stockbrokers, lawyers, “civic leaders” and assorted war profiteers kicking it back in luxurious surroundings, while enjoying filet mignons, lobsters and chardonnay, as served up by the loveliest daughters of the working class, of course, while their uglier cousins are left huddling in tents, not half a mile away.

Chased by the sky-high rent in San Francisco, not to mention Berkeley, yuppies and hipsters alike are fleeing to Oakland, fueling a mini boom in select neighborhoods, but much of the city is still a desolate mess, with homeless people everywhere. Pushing shopping carts, they scavenge for plastic and aluminum. Outside the Alameda County Administration building, they set up tents each night, and remove them each dawn, with their area hosed down by custodians, before the first clerks and secretaries arrive. Overflowing from San Francisco’s Chinatown, Asian immigrants, mostly Chinese, have also given Oakland an economic boost, with hundreds of stores and restaurants opening. Oakland’s Chinatown’s cheap eats have naturally attracted the homeless. I saw a man bought some lo mein, with bits of vegetables and pork, for just $1.50, haggled down from 2 bucks. The owner, a Vietnamese woman, said that at the end of each day, she’d give food to three homeless guys, one black, one white and one Chinese. At another dirt cheap joint, I saw a homeless man enjoy rice gruel with traces of chicken and preserved egg, plus a decent pork bun, for just $1.75 and 55 cents, respectively. The self-served tea was free and unlimited. On three chairs at his table were trash bags holding his possession.

In Oakland’s Chinatown, then, our destitute mingle with their more fortunate neighbors and with tourists. Some sleep on its sidewalks, while more dwell in tents, on its fringe. A family has wisely placed their tent on the other side of a fence meant to keep pedestrians from straying onto a freeway exit ramp. This fence now protects, among other things, their little girl’s pink bike.

Another sad and increasingly common feature of American life also makes a daily appearance in Chinatown. Each morning, at 8 AM, at least six full buses depart for various casinos. Years ago, one had to trek to Reno to lose one’s shirt, but now, there are “gaming facilities” all over Northern California, and the Chinese, long susceptible to gambling, are only too eager to get burnt. Solemnly they return from their wallet-emptying excursion, with that free bowl of duck noodles their only winning for the day. Soon, though, they will head back to the slots and tables, to get fleeced again and again.

For a taste of local entertainment, I went to a Tourettes without Regrets show. Hugely popular with those in their twenties and thirties, this episodic event is split in two parts, with the first billed as a “psychotic erotic vaudeville showcase.” It turned out to be a series of monologists stridently defending their sexual orientation, access, performance and misery. It was all about sex, and terrible sex at that, yet judging by the many hoots, hollers and appreciative laughs, it was very cathartic for the audience. The second part was a poetry slam, with aggressive rhymers pitted against each other to boast and trade insults. Again, the tone was insanely strident. This night’s one focus, its lone star, so to speak, was a petty and narcissistic ego that had to scream to the world that it was indeed happy and somehow fuckable. Under no disguise did love or any akin emotion make an appearance that night, and “you” was nearly always accompanied by an insult or accusation. The social and political were also no-shows. It was all about the solipsistic self, and the defiant defense of such. To many of us today, that’s social and political enough.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He's tracking our deteriorating social scape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America. Read other articles by Linh.