Posts Tagged 'Oakland'

Thoughts on American Gentrification, from the Absurd Location of Hanoi

Hipster girls make me say “awwwww’

So I’ve been thinking a lot about gentrification. American-style gentrification. Which is absurd, right? I’m living in friggin Vietnam, a developing country, and “developing” is not at all the same thing as “gentrifying.”

But, just as Paris was where David Sedaris moved to write about America, it seems as though SE Asia is where I moved to think and write about Oakland, about growing up in Oakland and getting sober in Oakland, in a time when Oakland and the Bay Area as a whole were gentrifying like crazy—the Dot Com Boom and Bust, when my brother and I got dinner in SF one night when I was 18, were walking down Market to the Church Street Station, down sidewalks lined with cute little shops and tons of white yuppies, and we turned to look at each other and exchanged this moment of “What the fuck has happened to SF?”

Of course it was different in Oakland. Oakland’s gentrification is kinda a fascinating beast (covered well here) cause it’s taken so long to happen, given Oakland’s geographic proximity to SF, but more because despite all the chi-chi restaurants (one of which I used to work at) and trendities (one which I used to be) and despite the rising rents and how clean and nice and urban-chic certain parts of town are, two of the biggest upshots of gentrification haven’t come yet: the public schools are still abysmal and the crime rate is, while better, still un-fucking-real.

You can blame a lot of this on the incompetent/corrupt city government. At least I do. There’s probably a whole slew of factors I’m not aware of, can’t be aware of cause I’m too close to it, have always been too close to it—how I stood on 40th and Telegraph every day during high school, waiting for my bus transfer, and watched the neighborhood change like a time-lapse photography project: first the junkies, then the punks, then the indies, then the yuppies, then the cafes that catered to the yuppies.

So. Some book came out. It’s called The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, and it’s by Robert Anasi, and I probably won’t read it. Not because I don’t care or don’t want to, not even because it’s not on Kindle (cause I just checked and it is) but because I have to be mad choosy about what I buy on Kindle—cause $10 still ain’t cheap and my Kindle account is linked to my US bank account, which is damn hard to get money into, cause it’s damn hard to get money out of Vietnam, cause all those $25/hr teaching gigs only pay in cash. #luxuryproblems

But it didn’t stop me from reading reviews of the book, this one more scathing than that one, and this one only tangentially a review. But it’s enough for me to decide that I’ll save my Kindle pennies for Bolano or Bissel or OMG will they ever get O’Conner or old Didion??

But the fact that I haven’t read the actual book hasn’t stopped me from having plenty of thoughts and opinions, perhaps not about the book, but about the questions raised in the reviews and commentary: the role of the gentrifier in relation to his (cause it’s mostly dudes who ended up writing about this shit) context. Or more specifically the gentrifier in relation the “natives.” I thought the more scathing Book Forum review addressed this pretty well, while the Salon review danced around the issue, mentioning it only at the end:

This sort of description, however, throws into relief the awkward relationship that such bohemian enclaves have with the destitute neighborhoods they nestle into — ebullient painters with their Jacuzzis who celebrate the surrounding grit and decay living side-by-side with people who probably don’t find the rubble so endearing.

I guess this is heart of it for me, since I straddled the line, had one foot in both worlds—always did, really, as I suppose you could say my family was pre-1st-wave gentrification, arriving in Oakland about 20 years too early. Or maybe that doesn’t count. The thing is, I looked like all the gentifriers: I had the tattoos and the skinny pants; I liked the expensive coffee (fuck it’s good); I went to the rock shows; I worked in one of the fucking flagship restaurants (great place, btw). It was the way I’d always looked like an outsider, mostly because of my race but also because I was prissy little white girl who, it turned out, really loved Nirvana and Johnny Cash. I was okay with that, cause I had to be—with the way other Oakland natives would be surprised at the fact that I was an Oakland native, and not one from the hills either.

Some of my best friends were gentrifiers. #winkwink Gentrifying doesn’t necessarily make you a shitty person, the same way that gentrification isn’t solely a bad thing—hell, look at the lakeside by my parents’ house these days. But there’s this way some people would talk about the neighborhoods, talk about Oakland or Williamsburg—this possessive, anti-yuppy way that in and of itself smacks of a certain starry-eyed colonialism. Like, most of the people arrested in the Oscar Grant riots weren’t from Oakland—had come to Oakland specifically to riot and break the windows of small, independent stores, had even spray painted “Oakland is our amusement park tonight,” which had summed up everything. Cause it wasn’t just that night; for a certain breed, Oakland was their playground every night. Oakland was a game they played at and that they could leave whenever they wanted. It wasn’t their home; they weren’t invested; they hadn’t grown up with the gun shots and crackheads and street violence; they didn’t love Oakland. Oakland was an affectation.

But again, I straddled the worlds. There was this punk house I used to go to shows at on Apgar Street. It was in my dad’s old district, before he retired from the Oakland Fire Department. We were having dinner one night and he was complaining about a run he’d gone on, “some entitled fucking kids” in “some filthy old Victorian” who’d been having a party in the backyard, burning shit and making a ruckus. When his crew had arrived at the house, the kids had been hostile. “‘Look, man, we’re not bothering anyone,'” my dad had related. “‘Well, actually you are,’ I told him, ’cause someone called in a disturbance. We sure as hell didn’t feel like getting out of bed to come down here and deal with you.'”

But it’s that kind of attitude, right?—the no-one-cares, we-can-do-whatever-we-want attitude. The reviews of the book are right: it does create a sort of freedom. You can look at the art happening now in Detroit, or at one of my all-time favorite bands, Hickey, who grew out of the 90s Mission District. But fuck, there’s gotta be a line, right? A line between using the cheap rents and lack of police control to explore and create and do cool new shit, and using it as a venue for self-serving debauchery.

I suppose it’s not so different from all the Gap-Year backpackers tubing in Vang Vieng. Or from the way certain travelers will moan about a place being “touristy,” forgetting they themselves are tourists—they way they’ll talk about how fucking cool and real it used to be. As though they owned it. As though there weren’t some weird capital in having been there first, having seen this shit when it real.

Like this

Cause the truth is, sometimes “real” sucks. Sometimes “real” is walking past malnourished ten-year-olds huffing out of plastic bags in Phnom Penh. Sometimes “real” is the smell of the dead fish floating in the lake near your apartment in Hanoi, cause the lack of environmental laws means there’s arsenic and god-knows-what-else in the lake that’s literally killing the fish, and despite that fact the OG residents are still fishing outta the lake and eating those fish cause it’s free and what they’ve always done. Sometimes “real” is not being able to sleep at night when you’re a kid cause your alcoholic neighbors, whose apartment balcony is next to your bedroom window, are having another one of those screaming 3am fights where they throw furniture and break windows and it takes the cops till dawn to arrive cause they’ve been busy at some homicides a few blocks away.

Which of course, still happens in Oakland. But maybe doesn’t happen in Williamsburg anymore, which might be what everyone is so bummed about. “Everyone” being those with a mouthpiece: the privileged crusaders nostalgic for a by-gone grit that most of them only had a surface relationship with, didn’t have the deep-rooted conflicted relationship you have with a place you grew up in, that you love and that’s also robbed half of your friends at gunpoint.

Which is a totally shitty assumption to make, especially considering I haven’t read the book and am on the other side of the planet, in my bathrobe with the lights dim and the AC blowing, hiding out from another torturously hot Hanoian day, made slightly more torturous by the fact that it’s a holiday and the air is thick with the burning of offerings. #real And all of this might be an expat version of Mansplaining, since all I can really do is read free essays online and sit around and mouth off like I know what I’m talking about; since I’m surrounded by other expats who do the same thing, and who may or may not know if I’m full of shit or not.

Which I might not even know either.

In Which I Listen to Modest Mouse and Get Nostalgic in a Hanoi Hotel Room

Sitting in my underpants, white sheets and AC, bag of lychee beside me and lychee fingers, sticky on the keyboard.

Pitchfork tweets something about Silver Jews. I click, I scan, I click on something else and I scan on something else.

See the ad in the sidebar. Ignore it, actually, flashing words and image of a sky outside a car window, like I’m in a car on an American highway, looking out of the window, riding. Finally succumb to the ADD-inspiring ad and read the words: “Pitchfork Classic: Lonesome Crowded West.”

“Lonesome Crowded West?! A ‘classic’?!” I scoff through through my mouthful of sweet goo, spit a seed into a plastic bag. “That was… oh shit, that was hella long ago.”

Click, load, let the video start to play. Montage of young boys on tour, wrestling, grinning, sweating under the lights on stage. Familiar sounds come blaring out of the speakers of my laptop; I turn it down, though fuck knows why since everyone else is this hotel is so damn loud. Hear the jangles and screams and distorted echoes of another place, another time, another era.

It hadn’t felt like that long ago.

*

North Oakland, 58th Street, the end of the last millennium. The first house friends of mine got together: ashtrays, 40 bottles, Goodwill couches. It wasn’t a proper punk house since there were only four people living it. Every punk house needs at least 1.5 residents per bedroom and it also needs a name. This house never had one; it was just “The 58th Street House.”

Sav, Jon, Sophie and Ben. Sav was a punk and so was Jon, though it was fading into a general Carhartt-wearing blue-collar tough. Sophie wasn’t a punk. Ben definitely wasn’t a punk.

So it was probably Ben that first brought the album to the house. It was that Northern, woodsy indie shit we generally didn’t like—too soft, too weepy, grow-a-pair-and-start-screaming. But he did scream was the thing, and I guess that’s what got us. Got me.

It was my first year at State and I was staying out there, over the bridge and through the BART tunnel, in that foggy patch of clapboard houses that disappear into the ocean, at the end of the continent. My first year in college, my first year sober, crazy as a motherfuck.

I’d take the train out on the weekends, those kinds of houseparties kids have when they first move out on their own: all-night, wrecked, music and smoke, backporch and basement and bodies on the floor. I didn’t drink—what the fuck did I do? Kick it and pretend. Feel less awkward than at the college parties, cause at least these were my breed. My people. My tribe.

And that album playing, over and over. Polar opposites don’t push away.

Sav and Jon singing along, late into the night.

*

They’re playing clips and flashing pictures, someone’s home movies of the band on tour. “A time when strip malls were coming, the paving of the West.” Do I remember that? Not really. I was in the city, we didn’t feel it as much, didn’t see the land changing under us.

“I guess you could say it was a prophetic album.”

They’re talking about the grunge era, old bands: Candlebox, Karp, Heavens to Betsy. I laugh; I hadn’t heard those names in a long time.

“It was a different time. Pre-internet, pre-youtube. You actually had to go to a store and buy a record.”

Is that not how we do it anymore? I wonder.

Holy shit, that’s not how we do it anymore.

*

There was this weird thing about the 58th St house—it attracted stray animals.

Like a lot. So much it got to be a joke. First it was a couple cats lurking around. Then someone knew someone who needed to offload an iguana. So an iguana cage showed up in the kitchen. Iggy the Iguana would come out and party with us, crawl around people’s backs.

Then there was a rabbit. It just showed up. Hopping down 58th St like it wasn’t a thing, like it was the goddamn Green Gables out there instead of North Oakland. Sophie was on the porch smoking and swooped the rabbit up. It chilled with them for a few weeks, then the owner showed up, some little kid asking.

A couple weeks later, they saw the same rabbit hoping down the street. They ignored it this time.

Then there was Mama cat. She wasn’t Mama cat when she first showed up, a skinny teenager howling at the top of her lungs. “God, go out and get laid already!” Jon yelled. She did. She got knocked up and plopped out four kittens. Sophie videotapped the birth. They’d watch it over and over, having it on during those houseparties, tiny kittens crawling around the floor and people trying not to step on them. “The Lonesome Crowded West” playing over and over. Smoke billowing, bottles clinking.

Soon a chain reaction.

Stray animals to stray souls, I said. Or maybe I just thought it.

*

They start going through each song on the album—the history behind it, explaining the lyrics, who wrote write part first. It’d be tedious if I wasn’t already invested, strung along by a whiff of nostalgia like the aftershave of an old boyfriend.

“They did it the old-fashioned way: you get in a van and you tour. You play shows. There was no Myspace, no Facebook, no youtube.”

I feel a little pang when they say that: “the old-fashioned way.” Is that an era that’s really gone? I still think of Pandora and youtube and iTunes as an accessory to going to shows, accessories to hearing some awesome touring band you’d never heard before, to the hat that would pass for gas money. Sure I’m away from it all now; sure I’m dependent entirely upon music blogs and PirateBay, but that’s just because I’m on the other side of the planet, right? That’s not really how it’s done now?

The laptop screen glows in the dim hotel room. I think of the hearing Le Tigre for the first time at a Santa Cruz co-op; I think of seeing Lost Sounds open at an East Oakland warehouse. I think taking the train out to see Modest Mouse at the Great American, Murder City Devils at Slim’s. I think of the last band I saw before I left the Bay; I’d found out about them on Pandora.

Did it really all change that much, when I wasn’t looking? Or worse, when I was looking but just couldn’t see it?

They keep flashing pictures of the band when the album came out. Their skin burns with youth, that flush of youth. They snap back to the recent interviews and their faces have dulled. Wrinkles and grey hairs in their beards. It feels like the first time I noticed wrinkles in my friends’ faces, the first time I noticed them in my own.

I’m enraptured by the younger shots, by the burning. Did we really ever have it? Did we really lose it?

I’ve said what I’ve said / and you know what I mean

I want to look. I want to check and see. But I can’t—the pictures from then aren’t in my iPhoto. They’re in crackling old albums in some box in a closet of my parents’ house, halfway around the world.

*

Iggy was the first to die. Sophie went out of town and someone didn’t feed him. Or someone left his heat lamp on or didn’t turn it on, I can’t remember. They buried his limp green body in the backyard.

One of the kittens died too. Someone sat on it; it was trapped beneath a couch cushion and they didn’t hear it crying. Another kitten got hit by a car but it survived. It had a wonky tail and it ran crooked, like its equilibrium were permanently off. “Brains,” they called it.

There was a fight in the kitchen one night, at one of the parties. That jack-ass Kevin tried to stab his girlfriend—threw her up against Iggy’s old cage and they had to pry the knife outta his hand.

Well, do you need a lot of what you’ve got to survive?

Whatever happened to Mama cat? She got old, I think, disaffected and uninterested. She wandered off one day. Or maybe I’m remembering that wrong. I can’t be sure anymore.

*

I remember being shocked that Modest Mouse made it big.

It was eight years later. I was back living in Oakland—had I ever really left?—waiting tables and had just started dating this new guy. God knows why, we didn’t have much in common. It was a beautiful June day and he wanted to draw the shades and play Guitar Hero. Um, okay.

A song came on; it sounded oddly familiar, the sensibility to the screams. “Who is this?”

“Modest Mouse.”

“What the fuck happened to them?” I remember thinking. It was poppy, slick, overly produced. I hadn’t been listening to the radio, didn’t pay attention to much outside my little DIY bubble. I’d forgotten all about Modest Mouse. My friends had moved out of the 58th St house; North Oakland had gentrified. Ben had broken a heart and left town. Sav had gone up north, lost in doom metal and an abusive relationship. Jon had disappeared. I’d imported “The Lonesome Crowded West” into my iTunes, sold the CD and promptly forgotten about it.

“Are they, like, big?” I asked the dude.

He gave me a look. “You haven’t heard of them?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Not like this, I haven’t.”

*

“Here / There” signs in North Oakland

It’s not all bad—Ben and Sav moved back. Ben got married, had a baby. Sav got clean, still plays in bands. Sophie became a preschool teacher; she moved to Costa Rica a few months before I moved to Cambodia. I think one of the kittens survived; Meiko adopted it and it might still be alive.

The malls are soon to be ghost towns / Well, so long, farewell, goodbye

Jon never showed back up.

*

I end watching the whole damn thing, all 45 minutes. The heat of the laptop has made me sweat and the lychee stick on my fingers has dried. Miniscule ants scurry around the keyboard, disappear behind the glowing keys.

I click on my iTunes, bring up Modest Mouse. Yup, still there. I go to click on the album, then stop.

All the people you knew were the actors

I’m alone. I’m alone in a cheap hotel room, a long time away, on the other side of the planet. What’s the use?

I get up and brush my teeth instead.

10 Thoughts on Being Back in the US

1. Riding in my dad’s truck, MLK:
“So what does it feel like to be back?”
Look out the window, lines of lanes and sidewalk. “Everything feels really sterile. And clean.”
“Sterile and clean? Not usually words associated with Oakland.”
Laugh. “Yeah, I guess not.”

Empty

2. Running around the lake, joggers in sweat clothes:
Everyone looks really healthy here—big and robust, cheeks flushed.

3. Whole Foods, walk around for an hour, confused—pick up food, put it back down:
How do you shop in a grocery store? Everything looks plastic.

4. Winter-like storm, long pants and a jacket:
Everyone else may be annoyed, but I’m tickled to death.

5. Waiting to make left turn, watching the cars:
The US feels like a video game, some kind of old-school Atari: little boxes moving through space. The object of the game is to stay between the lines, stay in the lanes, walk on the sidewalk, put trash in the bin…

6. Rapture billboards:
Why?

7. Waiting to meet Nhu and Jacobo outside Bette’s Cafe, watching family:
“But I’m huuuun-greee.”
“Well, we have to wait.”
“But I don’t wa-nnnna.”
American children are allowed to be really obnoxious.

8. Wine meeting for work, varietal characteristics and spit buckets:
This is my job. This is silly.

9. Drive to meeting, park; drive to yoga, park; drive to cafe, park:
My life feels like a video game. I’m not sure what the object is.

10. Waiting at stoplight. Car beside me: bass bumping, boy leaning out of the open window, shirt half-off, arms raised, dancing:
There is nothing, nothing in the world like African-American culture.

Hello Oakland

Hello taco trucks and Priuses,
Hello hyphy dreads and flannel shirts.

Hello berry season.
Hello farmers market.
Hello Blue Bottle, hello Strauss milk from a glass bottle.
Hello expensive cigarettes and cheap muesli.

Hello Muay Thai.
Hello jump rope, hello downward dog.
Hello pit bulls.

Hello Victorians and sky scrapers
of San Francisco in the distance.
Hello sound of trains at night.

Hello sound of kids playing
beneath my bedroom window.

Hello rock n roll shows and dance parties,
Hello art openings and literary magazines.

Hello back porch.
Hello leaves on the tree
and dead plants in the pots.
Hello Mick in pajama pants.

Hello vanity,
Hello bathrobe.
Hello stripped apron and wine notes.

Hello driving,
Hello seat belts,
Hello potholes on 880, arching
up the overpass past the railroad tracks—
Hello building
I’ve got tattooed on my arm.

Hello fog in the morning and fog at night,
Hello fog breaking
in the afternoon light.

And, why not: heading-home jam I can’t get out of my head…

Backporch


The end of a Sunday,
pink on the edges,
the moon a white wound.
Birds laughing
in some other language
as they fly off someplace
behind the roofs,
the wires and branches
that tangle like lives.

A crippled incest
crawls off to die
somewhere amid the vines
that wrap around the stairs
like green fingers
around the throat of this—

cars hissing
against a light
that is already gone.

Sunday Morning on International

Sunday morning on International Blvd. A sidewalk laced in fog, car exhaust, the sick-sweet smell seeping from panderias. Little girls in patent-leather shoes, dudes crouched and smoking and speaking in Vietnamese outside the street shop: “Good tattoo ain’t cheap, cheap tattoo ain’t good.” The rattle of shopping cart wheels, the bark of fenced-in dogs.

I’m running late. I’m going to the 11am meeting at the In Between, a beat-up converted barroom now filled with folding chairs and faded banners, where we sit and curse and laugh, talk about God and booze, “hmm-mm”ing and “uh-huh”ing and drinking cheap coffee that stains our teeth. I love that place, its dusty corners and dying plants, the sag of the window frames.

I pass the bright blue letters of Iglesia de Buen Sabor, a storefront church with white bars over its frosted windows. The tambourine rattle and exalted voices of its congregation pours out the open door, from a faceless place—always black inside, when looking in from the street.

I make eye contact with a man standing in front of the doorway. He has a look of well-groomed desperation: cheap suit, overly combed hair, shoes shining like little black teeth. He’s got one crippled arm, bent and with a tangle of underdeveloped fingers; he cradles it next to his body as though he were holding an infant, or a small injured bird. I give him the half-smile and nod of a hello in passing.

He steps towards me. “Hello,” he says. “My name is Juan Carlos…” he continues on with a couple more names, surnames and second middle names. He leans his small hand towards me.

I pause mid-stride, take his small hand. “Right on, man, good to meet you.” It feels limp and strange in my momentary grasp, and I try to amend my handshake, make it softer, let it fit the contours of his curled-in fingers. “I’m running late, though—” I start to step away.

“You have a lot of joy in your heart.”

I stop, look at him with a slightly cocked head. “Thanks.”

He nods, smiles, then steps back into the black swallow and tambourine roll of his doorway.

I cross the street and squeak my own door open.

Painting the Town: Street Artists Bomb the Bay

One of the nice things about living in the Bay Area is that people come here. Just, you know, to visit. We’re coming up on the high season, when the streets swell with tourists, clicking their cameras and speaking their different languages, hanging limbs off cable cars and sharing undoubtedly brilliant commentary in the halls of museums. We don’t complain so much about tourists in the Bay Area—aside from the fact that they spend a shitton of money (and have hopefully read the part in their guidebooks about tipping), it makes us feel good: we live somewhere people want to come to.

It makes us feel especially good when those people are street artists who leave us little gifts.

The Bay Area has been freaking out over the past few days about 6 Banksy pieces that have surfaced in San Francisco. We’re a medium-sized city, so it makes us feel special that an artist that big would come out and leave his mark. I, for one, had to take advantage of a sunny spring day and go on a taco-fueled, MUNI-powered mission across the city (cause, you know, why not?) to see as many as I could. But here on the quieter, slower side of the Bay, a couple other street artists/collectives have made visits. They may not be as big as Banksy (who is?), but spotting their work made me feel, I’m not gonna lie, a little warm and cozy about my hometown.

The blogosphere has been abuzz over Banksy lately. With the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, everyone’s favorite British recluse has been hitting up spots where the film’s debuted. (His recent work in LA caused quite the stir when it was physically removed to be sold in a shady art gallery.) The San Francisco debut of the film went down recently, and we were all waiting, holding our collectively aerosol-stained breath, to see if any Bay Area pieces would surface.

They did. Warholian broke the news, spread the word and even got himself on TV:

I had to wait a few days, for a full day off (new waitressing gig = mucho trabajo) to embark on the mission. Luckily, Warholian posted exact locations on his Flickr stream (along with far better photos than I took). Oh, the digital age…

What was funnest about missioning around to find the pieces wasn’t really the art; it was seeing all the people come out. Folks were really excited to see the work, like a treasure hunt where the reward wasn’t some crappy Easter egg but sick-ass stencils that spawned social commentary—and a nice dose of civic pride. One guy I met was super stoked that a piece ended up abutting his soon-to-open bar (“It’s like free publicity!”). A group of European kids posed for photos by the Native American stencil while a hip dude explained in Spanish to a passer-by what all the fuss was about. On Haight Street, I met an old dude with a serious camera—miles of lenses and clicky gadgets—who told me, “I’ve never been that into this whole street art thing. Always looked like a bunch of scribble to me. But I read about this in the paper and thought, well, that’s pretty cool. So I wanted to come out and document it.”

Doubt this one will be winding up in a gallery

Yeah, my camera sucks. You should really just Google this shit.

Say what you will about Banksy—publicity stunt conspiracy theories and cries of being too mainstream—but that Bristol boy got San Francisco juiced, taking pictures and making missions and actually chatting with each other (usually a more Oakland phenomenon). And at least one cool old dude seeing street art as something other than vandalism.

But I’ve been noticing more cool pieces around lately, on my own side of the Bay. One of my favorite street art blogs alerted me to that fact that Feral was in town, and I spotted one of his pieces (now gone) by the MacArthur BART station.

Abandoned furniture and trash-feasting pigeons: that's my town!

And up on Telegraph, the epicenter of gutter punks and flip-flop-wearing bros, I spotted one of TrustoCorp‘s guerilla street signs. These have been making me giggle for months, and I was stoked to see some stuff locally.

I’m not sure who did this piece, but I liked the placement of it—a busy intersection across from a Whole Foods—and its stark insistence on being noticed.

I’m continuing to think a lot about street art and what exactly it is that draws me to it—what exactly it is that seems so undeniably related to travel. It’s got something to do with place, with the insistence of place, the immediacy and intimacy of interacting with a place on such a visceral, physical level (the subject of one of my first ever blog posts). The words are forming, the drooling gibberish shaping itself into discernible sounds under my wet pink tongue (“mama,” “dada”).

In the meantime, I’m thinking a trip to Italy for Fame Festival might answer some questions and cure some wanderlust. Just in case the Bay doesn’t receive any visitors for awhile…

Ass Whoopin on the AC Transit: Epic Beard Man, and Why I Don’t Ride the Bus Anymore

Celebrity sighting on the 53

The voice was barely discernible, muffled by whizzing traffic and excitement. “I just rode the bus with Epic Beard Man! He was giving out candy bars and autographs, and I got a photo with him!”

My friend’s Friday evening commute home had been spiced up by a sighting of Oakland’s latest internet phenomenon. As the number 53 heaved down Fruitvale Avenue, passengers posed for pictures and chanted “Epic Beard Man,” as the grizzlied old dude distributed candy from his backpack and basked in the adoration of the bus riders.

Regardless of your take on Oakland’s latest internet sensation—racist, vigilante or mentally ill bad-ass—one thing is for sure: Epic Beard Man has reached celebrity status. And while a heated, racialized debate rages in chat rooms and on blogs, the actual riders of AC Transit appear to have risen Epic Beard Man to the revered status of folk hero.

Quick low-down, in case you’re out of the loop: earlier this week, a YouTube video of an AC Transit (Alameda County Transit) altercation between a middle-aged black man and an elderly white man (now dubbed Epic Beard Man) made quite a stir—over a million page views in its first day, and countless comments and ensuing discussions over issues of race and safety in Oakland. The story was picked up by local blogs, news outlets, even the Huffington PostKnow Your Meme offers the most complete run-down of the controversy, featuring video responses that capture some telling Oakland sentiments.

You can go to YouTube and dig through all the remixes, follow-ups and tributes, but here’s the original video. Yes, it’s graphic:

It’s no surprise that the video is so popular. It’s another opportunity for people to glimpse into the dysfunctional “urban” reality of Oakland, and people outside of Oakland never seem to tire of that. Several years ago, the city’s other big internet phenomenon fascinated outsiders with its oh-so Oakland cultural collisions and colorful characters (I was living in East Oakland at the time, and the screeching sound of whistle tips really did echo through the streets at all hours).

While responses to the latest video vary, they largely fall into two camps: Epic Beard Man is a racist, or a hero. He’s either an old redneck who asks a black man to shine his shoes, then beats him, or he’s a tough dude who stands up to a punk-ass thug who’s instigating and harassing him. In general, the first camp seems to be populated by guilty white people and advocates of all things ghetto, while the second camp is composed of kids, bus riders and enthusiasts of drama and smack-downs.

My own response lies somewhere between the two. Both men are unstable, not the kind of people you want to sit next to and exactly the kind of people you meet on East Bay buses. Epic Beard Man is obviously not well, further evidenced by follow-up interviews; turns out he was also the star of another YouTube phenomenon, a video where he gets tased at an A’s game for unruly behavior. He’s a deranged old Vet with a tenuous grasp on reality, prone to violent outbursts. Not someone who should be milling around the streets, trying to take care of themselves, but hey, that’s America (thank you, Ronald Reagan). The other dude should have left it alone, realized Epic Beard Man was not all there and not worth the trouble—but in his bravado, he got pumped full of ego and shit-talking and, well, he got served.

What’s most interesting to me is how the people most closely related to the issues raised in the video reacted—that is, AC Transit riders and people with exhaustive experience dealing with both the tiringly whacked-out and tediously ghetto. Most of the folks I’ve talked to feel that while, yeah, Epic Beard Man is totally deranged, dude got what he deserved.

It reminds me of an issue several years ago when an Oakland resident was both vilified and exalted for standing up to the thug kids that plagued his block, in what became a violent incident. While both parties in this instance were African-American, so the race issue wasn’t raised, responses were similar: he was either a vigilante hero, or a villainous attacker of innocent youth. Throughout the controversy, the man insisted that all he wanted was a safe neighborhood in which to raise his kids—what I’d argue the majority of people in Oakland are looking for. In the end, he did what most of the families I grew up with did—unable to afford a nicer neighborhood in Oakland, he moved to one of the outlying working-class suburbs.

Responses to that issue, as well as this one, tap into some very central Oakland issues. While the man from a few years back was a much more sympathetic (and sane) character, and didn’t want to be a hero, many people regarded him as such. I think it speaks to the extent to which people are sick of all the bullshit. People are tired of dealing with puffed up a-holes who think they can say/do whatever to whoever and get away with it, tired of shit-talkers, instigators and intimidators. So much so that they’re willing to revere violent behavior.

The riders on the 53 last night, majority non-white, were literally cheering for Epic Beard Man. Yes, some of it was surely star-struckedness and a glorification of school-yard theatrics, but I think there was something deeper going on there, something almost beyond race. Most of the video responses I’ve encountered are, in fact, from people of color. Epic Beard Man may be nuts, but the other guy was an ass. There’s no video glorifying him—and I don’t think it’s just cause he was the loser in the altercation. It’s a strange thing: an incident so racialized, that at its core, to the people who deal with this stuff day in and day out, has more to do with harassment and basic respect than race.

That the incident took place on a bus is no coincidence. A San Francisco Chronicle blogger (and fellow gym goer) centered his coverage of the issue on the ridiculousness of AC Transit—for him, it was all evidence for why he doesn’t ride the buses in Oakland.

Word. I grew up riding AC Transit, and it served as a serious education in the world. The first post on this blog was a reflection of how riding the East Bay buses prepared me for world travel, while the very first piece I published, as a teenager in The East Bay Express, was a narrative about my fucked-up experiences on AC Transit (I used a line from the piece as the title for this post). While shit like this doesn’t go down on the vast majority of bus rides, it’s not some sort of exceptional incident—it just happened to be captured on tape. I’m grateful for the schooling AC Transit administered; as a result of vital life skills learned on those blue plastic seats, people generally don’t fuck with me. But I’m even more grateful to have a car now.

The Epic Beard Man hype will surely die down—like everything these days, it’ll be discussed and linked to and tweeted wildly, then fade into the buzzing gray, the next craze taking its place (in the digital age, it seems everyone’s 15 minutes of fame are whittled down to 15 seconds). But for the rest of us, the issues the video captures will continue on: race, safety, the crazies that fill AC Transit. They’ll continue to roam around, screaming and bleeding all over our commutes, and I will carry on with my self-centered, polluting aversion to East Bay mass transit.

But I will say—being on that 53 with my friend last night would have been an experience. If for nothing else than the photo ops.

Flowers and Hair Dye: Getting Ready for the New Year in Oakland’s Chinatown

Short women elbowed through stacks of neon flowers. Banners boasted the rejuvenating wonders of herbs, tea, hair dye: “No. 1 Selling Brand in U.S.A.”, “Prince of Peace, The Name You Can Trust!” Distorted pop vocals crackled and hummed from a far-off stereo. Children gazed up at their toy windmills, decorated with carton tigers or Dora the Explorer, black eyes shinning and mesmerized by the spinning, spinning.

This last weekend was Oakland Chinatown’s annual Lunar New Year “Bazaar.” Not quite a street festival, not quite a farmers market, and anything but the well-known San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade (ahem, the “Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade”), the event captured Oakland’s Chinatown: non-glitzy, utilitarian, and not particularly concerned with outsiders.

I’ve been meaning to do a post about Oakland’s Chinatown for awhile. As its Chamber of Commerce website declares: “Oakland’s Chinatown is one of the most fun and authentic of the American Chinatowns. It is quite safe. It is not a line of t-shirt and postcard shops like much of other Chinatowns.” I recently tromped through San Francisco’s Chinatown with out-of-town relatives, which actually gave me a renewed appreciation for its lanterns, pagodas, skinny alleys and countless trinket stores. Growing up here, it’s easy to get blase about what remains alien and alluring for a lot of people. My cousins loved SF’s Chinatown, and I wouldn’t think of bringing them to Oakland’s—it would be totally uninteresting to tourists.

Diagonal crosswalk

Oakland’s Chinatown isn’t glamorous; there’s no self-conscious gestures towards exoticism. It’s not even really a “Chinatown” as much as it is an “Asiantown,” filled with a good number of Southeast Asians (and thus, one of the best Vietnamese sandwich shops around). Still, the history of the neighborhood is Chinese—as evidenced by the bilingual street signs—and the attitude, well, that’s Chinese too. It’s not hostile by any means, it just doesn’t go out of its way to include outsiders. It reminds me of the sentiment Pico Iyer captured in his 1980s essay “The Door Swings both Ways.” A lot of the stores and markets don’t bother to translate signs. Despite one of its main thoroughfares being four lanes wide, double-parking is so rampant it still takes ten minutes to drive two blocks. People ignored crosswalks and traffic signals so much that the city eventually gave up and installed Oakland’s only diagonal crosswalks.

Dingy awnings, block construction and an eerily empty mall are part of the unexotic offerings of Oakland’s Chinatown. And, this last weekend, two of its main streets were closed off for what’s marketed as a Lunar New Year Bazaar, but what’s really a stock-up opportunity for locals. I ran into an old friend who was working the event, and her aunt helped illuminate my hazy understanding of New Years traditions, informed mostly by the annual dragon dance on the playground of my grade school, when we got to throw cabbage and eat those chewy candies covered in rice paper.

Aunt Kathy told me about the purpose of the market, which is to stock up on bright flowers to decorate the home with. Yellow mums and reedy stalks (whose English name we couldn’t figure out) are most popular for their bright color and longevity. People also bought up red envelopes, for money giving; what I didn’t know was that only single people receive envelopes (hint, hint). As opposed to Chinese celebrations, when people have a week off work to visit relatives and feast, American celebrations are more condensed—people usually gather at a relative’s house for a night, eat a ton, and exchange envelopes, candy and sugar-coated fruit. “Like Thanksgiving”—but with a lot more red.

Like most things in Chinese culture, the traditions of the New Year seem to all go back to “good luck.” “Why the colorful flowers?” “For happiness and good luck.” “What’s the significance of the long stalky flowers?” “They live long, don’t die. Bring good luck to the house.” “Why all the candy?” “It’s sweet, bring good luck.”

Oakland’s Chinatown doesn’t hold a New Year parade or celebration, just one big market for all your flower, herb, sunglasses, socks, DVD and good luck buying needs. A couple of other non-Asians milled through the crowd, not quite sure what to do with themselves or why they were there. Where were the food stalls? The ethnic trinkets and radio stations? Meh, it was Chinatown. This was their affair, and they weren’t gonna dress it up for anyone.

Photos by Theo Auer

Aw, crap, forget my pocket phrasebook

Booth selling hair dye

What language is that under "Fast"?

Celebrity endorsement

Digging for goods

Flowers and sunshine

Another mystery booth

Dora the Explorer Windmill

Peeking in to a random shop

Ummm...

"Alright, alright, we'll give you a pagoda."

A jay-walker no more

Exotic...

Even Citibank is in the Year of the Tiger spirit

Buddha and a Raiders Logo

Honolulu, Black and White and Back in Time

Faces stare out from a two-dimensional black and white. They are laughing, posing, cast in shadows and cut-and-pasted beside lush palm trees, neon hummingbirds, tan thatching and pinkened skies. Sometimes they smile; other times they gaze off, someplace beyond the camera, looking out from thin layer of time and plastic. And I am completely obsessed.

It’s my weirdest and raddest score from the Bay Area’s rummage event of year. The annual Oakland Museum’s White Elephant Sale is a cult event local collectors, scavengers, cheapskates and lovers of vintage live for. The Oakland Museum benefit is held out in a Jingletown warehouse, and hosted by the spunky white-haired ladies of the Women’s Board. Donations are collected throughout the year, culminating in the kitschy bonanza of bargains. The event takes over the neighborhood, complete with taco trucks and a free shuttle to the BART station.

While the main event is a two-day affair held on the first weekend in March, this last Sunday was the special preview—when the die-hards shell out $10-15 months in advance to get first pickings. A friend finagled us onto the guest list; we traipsed down across the train tracks, through the sour estuary smell and into the warehouse bustling with bodies digging for treasure.

Inside the warehouse

There was a little of everything: antique furniture, vintage suits, old Polaroid cameras, $1 LPs, 80s action figures that brought me back to my childhood—even a box of expired condoms. The prices put any flea market to shame, and everyone was in a good mood. The staff was sweet and grandparently. An old dude with a vest full of buttons from previous years’ sales stood by a Thomas Edison record player, explaining to whoever passed how it worked and the history behind it. Some staff dressed up—I saw a Napoleon look-alike—which added to the festive atmosphere and reconfirmed my aspiration to be a cool old volunteer/docent person when I retire (like I’ll ever be able to…). A truly awesome moment came when, rifling through old records, a tween boy with shoulder-length blond hair picked up a Van Halen LP and let out a long, “Yessssss.”

I scored a couple cool vintage-y household items, but by far the coolest thing I came across was a 20″ x 16″ photo collage. It’s cheaply framed, cost $1 and is full of the kind of mystery that gets my wheels turning, my imagination shooting sparks.

The artfully executed collage of photos is from a group of young people’s vacation to Honolulu. The handwritten note on the cardboard back guesses the year to either be 1939, or 1940-43, World War II. Beneath that, four names appear: Virginia Matthiesen, Cole McFarland, Bud Matthiesen and “Sailor Friend.” Those are the only tangibles I have to cling to, the only ones I want. In the grey photos of shorelines and hotel rooms, a garden and a roadside, I have all the fodder for fantasy I need.

The group is young, mid-20s I’d guess. They have the eyes and expressions of old-school rebels, a kind of pre-Beatnik vibe, something carefree and a little wild in their smiles and poses. One has a Neal Cassady look; a girl has sharp cheekbones and piercing eyes; another stares off from above bare shoulders and a shell necklace. In a different photo, Neal Cassady is wearing the shell necklace, leaning in towards the girl as she looks away. The light has caught her blouse, making it blaze with a whiteness that obscures her face.

There’s an impossible number of stories inside the collage, silent and lost like a dream you can’t remember. Whoever made it set it in a border of tiki-style thatch print, then pasted a couple cut-outs of palm trees, to add color and a tropical vibe. It’s visually cool and kitschy enough to be hip. But really, it’s the faces that make me love the collage.

Of course, I’m projecting all of this—maybe they’re not artsy rebels at all. But that’s the fun of it, imagining a trip like that, then: how long it must have taken to get to Hawaii, how rustic and undeveloped it looked, how more pointed and romantic everything looks in black and white. And the timelessness of getting into adventures on the road. I haven’t found the perfect place for it yet; one of my roommates loves it, the other thinks it’s creepy. For now, it’s leaning against my bedroom wall, where I can stare and dream.

At the center of the collage, pasted on a pastel sunset, is a solo shot of the sharp-cheeked woman. She’s looking back, over her shoulder, holding a straw hat down against what might be wind, what might be the passage of time. I like to think she’s looking back at me, out from a moment that’s long passed, a place that isn’t the same, a youth that is gone. Probably, she was looking back at one of the boys in the collage. But a girl can dream, can’t she?


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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