Literary Nonfiction Workshop
Prof. Phyllis Raphael
Though I lived there throughout all of high school, the most intimate experiences I had with the ghetto were during my commute. We’d been evicted from our house in North Oakland and ended up moving to the lower bottom, a neighborhood of West Oakland in the furthest corner of the city, crowding onto the bayside waterfront, the port and across the water from San Francisco. The lower bottom had once been one of the most run-down areas in Oakland, but thanks mostly to its proximity to the Bay Bridge (you could get to downtown San Francisco faster than a lot of people in San Francisco could) it was gentrifying significantly. We could afford to buy a house there, barely, and my mom and her boyfriend figured the neighborhood held a lot of potential. About ninety percent of the residents were black, the rest mostly Latino with a little bit of everyone else scattered throughout.
My mom woke up at around two thirty in the morning to go to work and didn’t come home until around one in the afternoon. I’d get up at around seven to go to school. Paul, my mom’s boyfriend, was still asleep. In the morning the house was quiet.
I went to school in Berkeley, a fair distance from our new house. Since a ride to school was a rare treat I learned the intricacies of the BART system (Bay Area Rapid Transit). BART is a fast moving streamlined commuter rail, relatively expensive, with comfortable, air-conditioned cars and safe stations complete with their own squad of BART Police. Our neighborhood station, West Oakland BART, was located on 7th Street, about ten blocks from my house on 14th Street and to get to and from school I walked those ten blocks two times a day. I started thinking of this walk as “running the gauntlet.” It was my accepted routine, but I dreaded it. A lot could happen in those ten blocks.
Our neighbors were perfectly friendly. In the house to the left of ours Elizabeth and Kathryn, these two sweet old ladies who would smile broadly at us and bake us food and ask us how we were adjusting, tried to make us feel at home. But the predictable racial tension was still there. The class differences between the lower middle class white people and the super-poor minorities were only too obvious.
About a year after we moved in a white person was knifed to death in front of a liquor store a couple of blocks away from our house. The lower bottom saw its fair share of gang-related murders, but the knifing struck home to my family and me in particular because the person killed was so obviously part of the same gentrification wave that my family and me rode coming into this neighborhood. Aside from the fact that the man was white, there was no clear motive. A couple of days later, at night, while I was watching TV in the front room, a pickup truck drove past our house with a few young people dancing in the back to loudspeakers booming from the roof. Someone in the cab talked into a megaphone: “This neighborhood used to be all black. We need to take it back. Come on, let’s take it back.”
When I told kids at school that I lived in West Oakland I would usually get the same response. It didn’t matter if they were black, white, rich, or not so rich. They would look at me a little longer, a little harder, maybe knowingly raise an eyebrow, and change the subject. I didn’t blame them. They hadn’t been expecting that answer. First of all, I’m not black. And second of all, by the way I dressed and acted I didn’t distinguish myself as a ghetto white kid at all. Ghetto white kids are pretty easy to spot, in the same way that any person’s class level is pretty easy to approximate, and ghetto white kids in particular take a certain pride in their distinction (e.g. Eminem). It’s all in the mannerisms, accents, and styles. White kids who grow up in poor black neighborhoods walk differently than me, talk differently than me, and get worse grades than me. In a word that may sound prejudicial, but I hope is just observational, they are more “black.” I walked, talked, and cared about school just like a middle class white kid. So it’s understandable that Berkeley white kids would be a little shocked when I said I was from an area that they’ve learned to avoid like rat poison. I don’t look the part.
In the same way that I didn’t look the part to kids at school, I didn’t look the part to the people in my neighborhood. There I was, a skinny little white kid sporting Old Navy fleeces, blue jeans and a bulging high school backpack walking quickly and purposefully past prostitutes, drug dealers and crack houses.
On my walks I mostly met with a warm reception. People said hello when I passed them, commented on the weather, started easygoing conversation. There was a lazy, small-town kind of feel to the place. Old ladies sat on their porches, kids played in the street. In the middle of the day the lower bottom was full of life. On the way back from BART sometimes I would run into two ten and twelve year old brothers coming home from basketball practice. We would go as far as 10th street together before we went in different directions. Ronnie Mack, an old hustler in his 60s, and a ruthless alcoholic with a checkered past, became a familiar friend of mine. He hung out on 12th and Peralta, a pretty rough corner, and always told me he was “watchin’ out for me.” “Don’t worry,” he’d say, “nobody gonna try shit while I’m around.” I always felt a little safer when I saw him.
In the morning, just after the October daylight savings time, I would walk to BART in the dark, but I’d never risk walking home at night. Never. A strict rule. I’ve always thought of nighttime in West Oakland in a radically different way than I have the daytime. At night the truly dangerous people roamed with less care, the shadows were many and the threats could’ve been everywhere. The streets were empty. There were no friendly people to help protect me. I’d no longer be a kid going about his routine commute, but a target who could have a lot of money on him.
I was fifteen the first time I was harassed in my new neighborhood. On the way home from school in the middle of the day I passed a clutch of kids a few years younger than me and one asked if I had change for a five and held out a fistful of ones (doesn’t make sense, I know), and I said I didn’t have it and kept going. I had gone on about a block before they got their nerve up enough to come at me more explicitly. One of them, the littlest and I guess the ringleader walked up next to me and told me he wanted my money. I said I wouldn’t give it to him and walked off the sidewalk into the middle of the street. He tagged along behind me, his friends a few yards back. He asked me where I lived and I told him here. He asked me what I was doing here and I said I lived here. He asked me for my money and I said no. He asked me again. I thought that If I could get to 12th street maybe Ronnie would be there. He would see me, there was no way he wouldn’t, anybody passing by would see us out in the middle of the street and be able to tell something was wrong. But right now the sidewalks were painfully empty and I was just passing 8th street. If they started trying to beat me up I was outnumbered five to one, and not all of them were as tiny as the ringleader. Seemed like I was gonna lose another wallet. His friends were starting to get some guts and were circling around me now and I was walking quicker. Luckily someone I knew from the neighborhood drove past us, stopped and gave me a ride.
A week later I was getting off BART and I recognized a few of the same kids waiting for the bus stop on 7th street in front of the station. I called my mom from the payphone and asked her if she could pick me up. She heard the tone in my voice and told me she’d be over in a minute.
I hung up and walked to the door of the BART station and looked at them. The ringleader turned around and saw me, and pointed me out to his friends. They all ducked behind the bus bench. I stared at their hiding place, fully aware of the BART cops all around me, enjoying my indisputable advantage. One of them peeked his head over the bench, saw me looking and quickly ducked back. Ha! I was making them nervous.
After a couple of minutes the ringleader got up from the bench and came over with his two friends.
“What’s up?” he said.
“Hey,” I answered.
“So, uh, sorry we were messing with you,” he said shamefacedly. “We just…you know.”
His two friends seemed particularly uncomfortable, kept throwing glances over their shoulders and shifting on their feet. The ringleader looked at me steadily. He was probably about twelve.
“You didn’t call the cops or nothin?”
I shook my head.
“Cause really, we’re sorry.”
“Yeah, sorry,” one of his friends said.
“You know, I’m not even from the bottom,” the ringleader said. “I’m from the North,” North Oakland, “my friend was from here. It was his idea.”
This got to me. “Why’d you do it then?” I asked.
“Well, it was his idea. He just didn’t like you walking around here.”
“Man, I’m from here,” I said. A little bit of a lie, but whatever.
“I know…well, we’re sorry.”
My mom pulled up and I got into the car. The kids dispersed and I never saw any of them again.
As I worked my way through high school, a freshman to a sophomore, a sophomore to a junior, my social life expanded. After school I started hanging out with a larger group of people for longer periods of time. Mostly we lazed around and smoked weed either in the park next to school or at someone’s house, so I ended up falling in with the sizable Berkeley pothead crowd.
Generally you need a lot of money to smoke a lot of weed, so by necessity most of these kids had a fair amount of both floating around. They usually lived in the posh Berkeley Hills, so the fact that I was from West Oakland was a weird source of pride for some of my friends. They knew someone from the ghetto! When one of them would come to my house and get a call on his cell phone he would say, with perfect clarity and emphasis, “I’m at my buddy’s house in West Oakland.”
The biggest social inconvenience the lower bottom caused for me was the get-home-before-dark rule that I followed so strictly. I was the only person who still ran on middle school parental time. I didn’t get a car until I was half way through my senior year, and a ride home was usually out of the question. What Berkeley pothead would want to drive me so far into such a different place? My mom was usually asleep by eight in the evening. Since she got up so early her few hours of sleep were sacred and you risked sending her into a temper tantrum if you woke her up. After seven thirty I’d only call her in emergencies. If any of those sheltered Berkeley Hill potheads asked why I wouldn’t walk it in the dark, or suggested I was making too big a deal about it, then I could really put to use the significant ghetto cache my neighborhood held. I’d look at him/her, shrug a little and say, “Well…you don’t live there. Trust me.” Since they didn’t know, had no way of knowing, this shut them up.
The desperation of poverty is depressing. Sometimes it weighed on my soul. Sometimes we heard gunshots, through our front window saw people get beat up and robbed. I got to know an old homeless man named Lou when I was a sophomore who died of malnutrition. Mostly our house with its fences and dogs was a protected island of at least some money and comfort, an isolated little oasis of better living. The people who had less knew we were there, knew we had more, knew we had it better. I caught people trying to steal our bikes out of our backyard, saw people jumping back over our fence to get away from our dog, and sometimes woke up with my mom in the early morning cause a few scary-looking people were hanging out in front of our house waiting for her. Sometimes it was easy to lose faith in humanity.
Instead of hating poor people, or black people, I hated society and I hated Oakland. I knew first hand that America, with all its wealth, power and privilege, allowed so many of its citizens to live like animals, and didn’t care to help them find another way. Instead I developed an acidic disdain for the yuppy Rockridge and Oakland Hills white people who lived in such luxury and ignorance (although until we’d moved to the lower bottom I had been a lesser one of them). This is probably how I avoided becoming a rabid racist. When I was mugged for the fifth time I stomped around the house shouting “Fucking black assholes!” over and over for almost an hour (I’ve never been able to say the “n” word, even in private). But cops were worse, I told myself later. Fucking dicks didn’t even come to my house to take my statement until an hour and a half after I’d called them. Once I swear I saw a couple of policemen rob the little Chinese restaurant across the street from my house. Another time one of Oakland’s finest pulled up next to me, got out of his car and aggressively approached me. He grilled me on what I was doing in this neighborhood (white kids who look like me are usually only in the lower bottom to buy drugs; there’s some racial profiling for you), but didn’t have anything to say after I gave him the typical innocent answers (I live here; I’m going to the BART station; That’s a CD player in my jacket pocket).
Of the six times that I’ve been robbed, as far as I know my mugger’s only been caught once. He was stupid. He was asking to get caught. According to the cops he had robbed twelve other people in the same area over a three-day period. I’d been coming home from school at around 3:00 in the afternoon when I heard someone walking quickly behind me. I turned around and saw an average build young-looking man wearing a white jumpsuit with the hood pulled up. He had been looking at me but looked down when I turned around. I felt a little thrill of adrenaline rush up my spine. This guy was coming for me. But I didn’t act, I continued, walking a little faster. He caught up to me as I was crossing Henry Street. I turned around and he pulled a silver pistol out from under his shirt.
“Gimme your money,” he said.
I took a step back and looked at the gun. It didn’t look right. It looked fake.
“Gimme your money!” he said more urgently.
I put my hand in my pocket and dazedly pulled my wallet out and held it out to him, still looking at the gun. It didn’t look like metal. It had a little plastic-looking crease running down the barrel.
He snatched my wallet out of my hand and ran down Henry Street.
I stomped my foot. Why had I given him my wallet? That was a fake gun!
“Fake ass gun! Fake ass gun!” I yelled at his back. He turned right on 8th Street and disappeared.
I ran home and called the cops immediately, and told them which way I saw him run and gave them the best description I could. I also said I would theoretically be willing to try to pick him out in a lineup, not expecting them to actually call on me to do so. They never catch these guys. But about half a week later, Sergeant Rupple called me at home and asked me to come in. “How’s Thursday at seven?” “That’s fine,” I said, numbly.
My mom’s boyfriend Paul took me to the police station in downtown Oakland where we waited in a stark little room with a couple of other alleged victims of the same mugger, a German exchange student who seemed totally shocked by the whole thing, and a neighbor of ours named Ralph who lived on 14th and Campbell Street. All of us were white. The cops told us not to talk about the case with one another.
After about half an hour Sergeant Rupple led us into another room with a huge pane of glass separating us from the white wall and the height markings that I’d seen so many times in movies. Sergeant Rupple handed us all a sheet of paper with the usual personal information section, and six cartoon outlines of men, numbered one to six, underneath it.
“First of all I want to tell you all that this is one-way glass,” he said, rapping his knuckles on it. “You can see everything that goes on behind it, but no one on the other side can see you. You have no reason to worry about being identified or recognized. Six men roughly fitting the descriptions you gave us will walk into the lineup room. They will be holding numbers from one to six. Is there anything you’d like us have them say?”
I told them to have them say “gimme your money,” and the German exchange student told them all she could remember was “start shootin’.”
“You’ve all received the line-up form, right? Fill out your personal information at the top. On the bottom there are six cartoons representing the different suspects you will see. If you recognize the person who assaulted you, put a check on the corresponding cartoon. If you think you recognize the person but you aren’t sure, mark the cartoon with a question mark. Do you have any questions?”
No one did.
A few minutes later the six men filed into the well-lit room with the white wall and faced the glass. They didn’t look alike at all. One guy had a beard. One guy was thin as a rail, and one thick as an elephant. A couple were tall and lanky, and one was especially stocky. The only similarity in appearance was that they were all black. Except for one man, none of them looked like the guy who had robbed me. He had pulled his collar up over his nose, so I had only been able to see his eyes, build, and skin-color, and number four looked something like the guy. While the other five men looked straight ahead stoically, said their lines with confidence and hardly fidgeted throughout the ten minutes or so they stood there, number four looked nervous. His eyes darted and he shifted on his feet. When he said “gimme your money,” reading from a little card he’d been given, I decided it was him, and I drew a check on his cartoon. If that wasn’t him, then he wasn’t in that lineup. Paul later agreed with me that the guy looked spastic.
After the lineup I felt exhausted and shitty. It had been the first time I’d ever seen an assailant of mine punished, and it felt weird. I didn’t feel gratified. What had that accomplished? Was Oakland safer now that this guy was in jail? My neighborhood still looked the same. Out the window we passed the Acorn Housing Projects, with its rows and rows of desolate, identical houses. Groups of teenagers hung out on cars, looking intimidating. Dirty, desperate homeless people walked with their heads hung forward. This was home. Had I helped make it a better place to live? Was it safer?
Sergeant Rupple never called me to tell me if I’d picked the right person or what had happened to him, but based on the number of white people who had been at that lineup, I’m sure it didn’t turn out very well for him.
I didn’t feel any safer walking to BART, knowing that one man, one of my six muggers, was behind bars. I felt more on edge than I had after the little kids had apologized to me at the BART station. I tried to look in all directions at once. It’s always a little rough going about the same routine after being robbed, but I was getting to be an old hand at it. I wasn’t used to retaliating.
There wasn’t much I could do. Since we’d moved there I had had no choice but to live my life in as normal a way as possible, to just go to school every morning and come back from school every night. Though I might hate the people who hurt me, I knew that wasn’t in mired in a perpetual state of desperate poverty like they were. Though I was a victim of violence, I wasn’t going to the West Oakland public high school with its grim, dirty buildings and concertina barbed wire ringing its fences. If I had gone to that school, if I had grown up in a family plagued by unemployment, poverty maybe addiction, I would have turned out differently, I could have ended up on the other side of the glass in one of the countless lineups identical to the one I’d attended. There was never a chance that I would fall in with a gang or become part of the street life. I had a chance to go somewhere, to do something with my life. What I dealt with for half an hour a day on a ten-block walk was a small part of my formative years, where I saw a side of humanity and society that few kids sharing my rung on the social ladder got to see. The lower bottom taught me something. I learned how to be aware and streetwise. I can sense threatening situations from a mile away, and can at least manufacture the confidence to stare them down. For the last few months, while I’ve been attending a well-respected university, I’ve been living in New York City, in West Harlem and walking through a supposedly dangerous park at night, but as of today haven’t felt unsafe one single time, or felt that I wouldn’t be able to handle myself. Wherever I go I’ll be able to say that I’m from the lower bottom. But unlike most people from the lower bottom, I at least have a chance of making it to the top.