A day in the life of Frank Ogawa Plaza
on September 23, 2009
We’re only a few short hours into the autumnal equinox, which can only mean one thing: summer has arrived in Oakland. The sun beams high overhead the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. Pigeons dive to the concrete and back to the sky, swooping past two small children, a brother and sister, who laugh loudly and run in circles around the birds. Their father waits patiently nearby until the pigeons fly away, then steers the children to their next destination.
Fletcher scoots over on his bench as I bypass his green bicycle, making room for me to sit down. I smile and he nods his black-beanied head, his two diamond earrings gleaming in the mid-day sun. He sits in silence, looking around—to the clean-cut man drinking a root beer and eating a bag of potato chips on the bench next to us, to the businesswoman next to him on her cell phone, to the group of teenagers congregating behind us.
A swarm of bees fly from the periwinkle bush next to Fletcher and he flinches, his gold t-shirt zooming toward my end of the bench. “Them bees gonna get me,” Fletcher mumbles, and I look closer. A hearing aid hugs his left ear.
The boys behind us get louder, five or six of them now, they can’t be any older than twenty. Long t-shirts and baggy pants, backwards caps on some, tattoos covering all. Men and women in dress pants and button downs clutch their bags, chat on their cell phones, put in their ear buds, and stroll past as if they are not there. This is Tuesday in Oakland.
“They don’t know how to act,” Fletcher says, leaning into me. Who? Fletcher nods his head back. “People don’t know how to act so I keep to myself.” His skin is leather and crackles around his eyes. Fletcher has seen more than I care to know.
“You know, the violence will never stop,” he says, pointing behind him. “When you don’t got no jobs, no education, it won’t stop.” One boy speaks up loudly behind us and raucous laughter fills the air. Fletcher pauses, rolls his eyes. “There are too many young people here. All trouble.”
Men and women, smartly dressed, in khakis, slacks, skirts, bright colored blouses and staid, crisp button downs, all stream out of buildings like clockwork, every half-hour, a mass exodus. Most have the mark of success—well, it’s the mark of something, depending on what you’d call the government-issued ID that labels the important from the rest of us. They march like ants, one by one, past Fletcher, who has moved to a sunnier bench away from the kids, past the thugs, down the 14th Street BART entrance. Home free. Another day gone.
Two women crawl through the crowd, deep in conversation. On the right, a large-bosomed woman in a red shirt wheels her black half-suitcase slowly as she looks at the thinner, petite woman, sharply dressed in a gray blazer (buttoned up) and black slacks. They stop. “He always turns like this with his glasses and then he goes like this,” Gray demonstrates to Red, pointing her hand to her head. Red laughs. “He’ll ask, ‘Have you gotten an attorney yet?’ Do you know how hard it is to get an attorney?”
They move again, slowly, engrossed in conversation. Another wave of people engulf them as they run to BART—a train has shuddered still below our feet. Red and Gray say their goodbyes and walk apart, only to come back together again seconds later. “He jumped up,” Gray exclaims, and then she jumps up, too. Red stands in the BART stairwell, but no one is deterred; the crowd adapts, moves around her. The legalese continues, Red’s laughter floating into the late afternoon breeze. It is another three minutes before Red walks down the escalator to catch her train.
I’m standing in Ricky’s office. I don’t realize it until he knocks on the window of Tully’s—I’m outside, he’s inside, but it’s snack time, of course. I head inside. “I give the city council hell,” he says. Quite the introduction. Ricky is tall and looks neat, wearing jeans and a red polo with white stripes, a baseball hat perched on his head. He carries a brown, grease-stained paper bag and talks to me whilst chewing his croissant. Like I said, it’s snack time.
“I wanted all the money for the homeless,” Ricky explains. “They only give $10 million dollars for all the homeless in Alameda County. Out of $72 million. The sheriff gets, like, $54 million of that.” I’m not sure where Ricky is pulling his numbers from, but before I can ask, he continues. “And then they all went on vacation.” Ah. We’re back to the city council.
Sheena the barista makes her way over. “Ricky, I’m closing up,” she says, ushering us to the door. She smiles broadly as Ricky wishes her goodbye and then envelops her in a bear hug. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he promises her, and I know this is just a normal afternoon for him. This is dinner.
Ricky properly shows me around his office—the entrance to the 14th Street BART. It’s after 5 p.m. now and business is booming as people rush down the escalator, but no one stops to buy one of Ricky’s copies of Street Spirit. Still, he wishes everyone who passes to have a nice night. Most ignore him, but some look his way and smile.
“Some of the people I know say it’s pathetic to work, but I’d rather work here and sell these papers than beg,” Ricky tells me as he looks for someone to sell to. He throws a piece of muffin to the pigeons, who eagerly scoop it up. “But some of my friends make $300 a week that way. You know, if you keep setting out milk for a cat, he’ll come back.”
Ricky takes his job seriously—this is his corner, really, and people seem to recognize him, those of them that look up to acknowledge him as they race to the train. But he admits that life here in the plaza, day after day, can be hard. “I got a ticket back in March,” he admits. “Soliciting for personal reasons.” Ricky takes a bite of his muffin, talks with his mouth full. “If you look that up, it’s prostitution. The cop didn’t think I knew that.”
I bought a paper from Ricky as I left. Another dollar, another muffin, another day.
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