Every week this fall, Oakland North is taking a blogwalk. Usually on weekends, but maybe not. Sometimes we’ll have cameras, audiorecorders, or both; sometimes we’ll just tell you about what we heard and saw. If you want to send us someplace in particular, let us know.
It’s a balmy early Friday evening in North Oakland. The stretch of College Avenue between Broadway and Claremont slowly comes more and more alive as the sun descends.
The 51 and 7 AC Transit lines groan and sigh past every few minutes, sunglass-wearing conductors nodding coolly to one another from behind oversized steering wheels and massive flat windshields. Helmetless hipsters, in jeans so tight they have to clip their house keys to their belt loops, cruise by on fixed-gear bicycles. Tautly muscled Serious Cyclists – all aerodynamic helmets, spandex shorts, and multi-thousand dollar bikes – zip past the hipsters. Young children and their moneyed parents pack popular restaurants like Zachary’s Chicago Pizza and Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers, while professional couples sip wine and poke salad inside Oliveto. Introverted-looking lit-types wander into Pendragon Books, and a clipboard-wielding guy in a “Legalize Gay” (that’s it, no Marriage, just Gay) tee shirt petitions passersby.
“I work at Lucky now,” Jack says. “I pack bags and help customers out to their cars. I have to do whatever my boss says.”
If you happened to have been in sixth grade at Willard Middle School in 1997, Jack’s an old classmate. At this moment he’s seated on a sidewalk bench, wearing gray sweats and a blue tee shirt, accessorized with a black fanny pack and elastic-strapped digital watch. He says it’s his 25th birthday and he’s waiting for his mother and sister to arrive for a celebratory dinner at Barney’s. An AC Transit bus pass hangs from a red lanyard around his neck.
“Did you hear the news that many people got kicked out of their houses his year because of the economy?” Jack asks. “Barack Obama’s trying to change it. He’s trying to change the graphs and the percentages for the whole country. He’s famous because he’s the first president who’s black.”
In the sixth grade, Jack had a bearded Russian personal aide named Steve whose black shoes would often squeak loudly as he walked down the school hallways. In class, when Steve’s footwear would foreshadow his arrival to the room, Jack would announce loudly and repeatedly, “Squeaky shooooooes. Squeaky shooooooes approaching.” Ms. Olson hated the distraction, which cracked up the rest of the students.
Jack tells of a cashier at Lucky who is rude and mean to him, says he makes her angry every time he speaks, and won’t let him bag groceries at her register.
“You remember the white Mr. Williams who taught history at Willard?” Jack says. “He says I should tell a union rep. You think I should tell a union rep? I’m going to tell a union rep. That’s what I’m going to do – tell a union rep.” He pauses and runs his fingers over his dry lips. “Yeah. I’m going to tell a union rep.”
* * *
“It’s Bob, just Bob,” the guitarist seated at the bench one over from Jack introduces himself. “Like Bob Marley.”
The short dreadlocked and bearded man is busking, softly finger-picking a black acoustic guitar in hope of tips. He wears a red hooded sweatshirt and baggy cream-colored khakis. Several of his teeth are missing, and his dreadlocks are enclosed in a bulging green and brown knit cap.
Someone asks him how much money he expects to earn this jam session.
“It’s not about the money,” Bob answers. “It’s just like, maybe I was waiting for something and stopped here on this bench. I haven’t played publicly in years, so I thought I’d just start playing.”
What he’s waiting for is unclear.
“But my money was getting funny,” he admits a moment later. “So I thought I’d put this out.” He gestures towards an empty plastic bottle on the bench next to him, out of which a dollar bill pokes suggestively.
Bob’s bicycle is parked beside the bench he has claimed. A black milk crate is attached to the back of the bike, lashed to the frame in part by a studded black belt. Inside the crate is a water bottle, short wooden staff, folded cardboard boxes, and a single-page 2010 Michael Jackson calendar.
Thirty minutes later, his wait apparently over, Bob packs his guitar into a soft Oakland Raiders case and wheels his bike down the block to College Avenue Presbyterian Church. FRIDAY NIGHT MEAL ON COLLEGE AVENUE says a banner, ALL WELCOME. Bob disappears down an alleyway to a side entrance.
A few minutes later, a boisterous tall man with short hair emerges from the alley.
“I can hardly breathe,” the man yells. “Too many people with hot breath in there! I can hardly breathe.” Balancing a plate piled high and topped with several slices of pink watermelon, he takes a seat on the church’s brick steps next to a haggard-looking fellow smoking a cigarette and wearing a black Metallica shirt. Behind them, a flyer taped to a church window advertises a $60,000 reward for information leading to the whereabouts of Hasanni Campbell, the five year-old boy who allegedly disappeared in the neighborhood last month.
“That’s the beauty of this place,” the loud man tells the haggard one, chomping a slice of melon. “Multiple desserts.”
* * *
GEORGE & WALT’S, reads a sign up the street, bracketed by the white silhouettes of two martini glasses. Inside, a jocular bartender holds court.
“Every hour’s happy hour in here,” he tells a new patron.
The bartender is tall and middle-aged, with a white goatee and wearing a green sport shirt. A neatly folded towel hangs from the waistband of his cargo shorts. In front of him on the bar a compartmentalized black plastic tray holds olives, sliced oranges, lemons, and limes, and maraschino cherries. Behind him, exactly 132 shelved bottles of liquor sit ready to pour. In one corner, Fresno State and Boise State engage in college football on a big-screen television, while, above the shelves of liquor, three different professional baseball games play on different monitors. The arcade game Big Buck Hunter goes unused in another corner, its plastic rifles holstered. A man hunches alone over a long table, silently playing video poker and nursing a draft beer. Two pool tables sit vacant, one under a red low-hanging Budweiser lamp, the other beneath a Bud Light fixture. On one wall, framed Ken Stabler, Willie McCovey, Rollie Fingers, and Joe Montana jerseys pay homage to Bay Area sports heroes.
At 6:55, there are fifteen men and zero women present, other than the heavyset lady helping tend bar. A couple – the man wearing a crisp white dress shirt, the woman a low-cut sundress – walk in the front door, survey the scene, and then head back out. A man approaches the bar and orders a drink.
“Man, I remember Bourbon Deluxe,” he says. “$3.50 for a fifth.”
“Yeah,” says the barkeep, laughing. “Those were the good old days, man. Good thing we survived ‘em.”
–Sam Laird/ Oakland North